As the world stays home, street vendors fight to survive

Bouquets of flowers can be seen left on the road by street sellers at Kadikoy in Istanbul, on April 12, 2020. (Bulent Kilic / AFP via Getty Images)

On a typical day, Istanbul’s streets hum with the sounds of small-scale commerce: vendors with trays of bread rings balanced on their heads, or pushcarts piled high with seasonal fruits and vegetables, calling out their wares to passers-by as they weave through the city’s crowds. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Turkey in mid-March, however, those once-vibrant streets have largely gone silent, leaving the people who form an essential part of the urban fabric in a precarious position.

“Street vendors work to earn money for the next day, not for the day after that. But these days, they can’t go out to the streets, and if they do, they can’t find any customers there,” says Dr. Osman Sirkeci, the head of a recently established municipal body working on street economy issues in the Turkish city of İzmir. He estimates that only 10% to 15% of street vendors in Turkey are currently able to make even a minimal living.

Around the world, street vendors are among the most vulnerable to the ongoing economic turmoil wrought by the coronavirus — and potentially to the disease itself. Many are part of a two-billion-strong global workforce of the informally employed that is often poor, lacking in job security and health care, unable to “socially distance” by working from home, and unable to access government support. A growing number of initiatives by street vendors and their advocates aim to help these workers recover some of their income while simultaneously bolstering the cities where they operate.

“Street vendors are very important in providing what communities need, whether it’s the halal food carts in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, or the hundreds of different cuisines in Corona or Jackson Heights [in Queens], that reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood,” says Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Street Vendor Project in New York City. “There’s also a security aspect: street vendors are the eyes and ears for the city, lighting up our sidewalks at night and making them feel safe”.

The Street Vendor Project has initiated a crowd-funding campaign to provide small emergency relief payments to its 2,000 members, people like Mamdouh Elgammal, a vendor originally from Alexandria, Egypt, who has been operating a halal food cart outside of LaGuardia Community College in Queens for the past 20 years.

“I do well over there, but most of my customers are students, so once the schools closed, there was no one on the streets. I haven’t worked since 5 March,” says Elgammal, who is the sole financial provider for his family of four. “It’s almost at the end of the month, so that’s going to be the second month with no money for rent,” he says. “To be honest, I think I can only last like this for a couple of weeks more. I’ve had customers call me, they say they miss my sandwiches, but they can’t go out right now”.

The Street Vendor Project’s crowd-funding campaign has raised more than $70,000 in under a month, a sign, executive director Attia says, that “New Yorkers look out for each other and understand the value of street vendors to our urban culture”.

The group is also working to get some of New York’s 20,000 street vendors included in municipal contracts to deliver food to people left homebound by the pandemic. A similar effort is underway in the UK, where the Nationwide Caterers Association is connecting food truck operators and other mobile vendors with gigs feeding essential workers, including healthcare staff at the NHS. In Barcelona, members of a migrant street vendors union are being employed by a food bank to deliver groceries to needy families.

Such initiatives highlight one of the most crucial roles street vendors play globally.

“Research unequivocally shows that the informal economy is absolutely critical to food security, particularly in lower-income communities,” says Caroline Skinner, urban research director for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing & Organizing (WIEGO). Street and market vendors reach areas without supermarkets, offer low-cost alternatives to restaurant meals, often extend credit to regular customers, and sell in smaller, more affordable quantities. And even during a pandemic, Skinner says, “they can trade as safely as supermarkets as long as they have water supplies and sanitizer at hand”.

Many national and local governments have in fact classified mobile food vendors, especially those selling fresh produce and other staples, as essential workers. But they still face an array of obstacles, including drastically reduced foot traffic by potential customers; restrictions on travel between rural areas where food is grown and cities where it is sold; and rising prices for their stock due to hoarding by more well-off consumers.

“Governments don’t really understand how the informal economy functions, even in countries where it makes up 80% to 90% of the workforce,” says Oksana Abboud, international coordinator for StreetNet International, a global alliance of membership-based street vendors’ organizations. “So we are encouraging our members to propose practical, bottom-up solutions, like working in shifts at street markets to ensure that everyone gets at least some very basic income, rather than closing them altogether”.

In the early stages of the pandemic, many vendors were quick to take to the streets with masks and hand sanitizer for sale. In some cities, including Portland, Oregon, and Washington, DC, they are being more formally incorporated into public-health efforts to get coronavirus-related information and supplies into underserved communities.

Elsewhere, street vendors are partnering with local taxi and rickshaw drivers to expand their customer bases by home-delivering meals. Some of these pairings are happening organically. In Bangkok’s Old Town in Thailand, vendors got a boost from employees of the Once Again Hostel, who started the online platform Locall.bkk to promote the street vendors they used to recommend to their now-vanished guests.

“These vendors don’t always know how to work with digital platforms, so this has been a good way to introduce them to more people. The volume of orders has doubled every week since we started,” says Peangploy Jitpiyatham, cofounder of Locall.bkk, which coordinates delivery by underemployed motorcycle drivers of cooked dishes, baked goods, beverages, and snacks made by some 60 different vendors. “We do a lot of work with local social enterprises, so this is not just a pop-up,” Jitpiyatham says. “It’s part of the relationship we have with the community, a tool to help everyone work together”.

Despite their creativity, few of these initiatives can fully make up for street vendors’ lost income, so most advocacy groups are pushing governments to provide some kind of emergency cash support during the pandemic, and to make sure relief programmes are inclusive of all workers, now and in the future.

“Amid the darkness of coronavirus, there are some real opportunities to address the fault lines it has amplified so dramatically,” says Skinner of WIEGO, who emphasizes the importance of governments reaching out to grassroots networks of informal workers like street vendors to incorporate them into social-protection systems and tap their expertise.

That’s just what Dr. Sirkeci has been hired to do in İzmir, Turkey, where he is bringing together – virtually, of course – members of different street vendors’ associations in the city to talk about their daily problems and discuss possible solutions.

“Street vendors are always ready to adapt to a new situation,” he says. “It’s not like a big company that needs many months to change. They are ready every time.”

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. 


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”