Street Vendors

Introduction

Street vendors are an integral component of urban economies around the world. Distributors of affordable goods and services, they provide consumers with convenient and accessible retail options and form a vital part of the social and economic life of a city. Street vending as an occupation has existed for hundreds of years (Bromley 2000) and is considered a cornerstone of many cities’ historical and cultural heritage.

The academic literature on street vending commonly treats street vendors broadly as those who sell goods or services in public space. This includes the full gamut of goods and services, traded on a wholesale or retail basis, in streets and other kinds of related public spaces – including sidewalks, alleyways, and medians. Street vendors may have fixed stalls such as kiosks, semi-fixed stalls like folding tables; they may operate from crates, collapsible stands, or wheeled pushcarts that are moved and stored overnight. Other vendors sell from fixed locations without a stall structure, displaying their merchandise on cloth/plastic sheets; mobile vendors walk or bicycle through the streets as they sell (International Labour Organization 2002). 

Terminology

The term “street vendor” in English is typically used interchangeably with “street trader,” “hawker,” and “peddler.” There are also many local terms and regional variations.1 Street vendors are sometimes distinguished from vendors who operate in the types of public spaces that are not specifically streets or related to streets – train stations, buses, public parks, and so on – but most commonly the term is used inclusively.

Street vendors are frequently distinguished from vendors who operate in officially sanctioned off-street markets, which may be public or private. In many countries, street vendors are relocated to public (municipal) markets or buildings that are privately owned and converted to off-street markets under the aegis of municipal programmes. Once they move off the streets, these vendors are typically referred to as market vendors or micro entrepreneurs, although their businesses otherwise remain much the same. In most countries, local terms distinguish between different types of street vendors, based on the time or place in which they work. In official statistics in some countries, street vendors are a subset of the category “informal traders,” which also includes people who trade from their homes.

Employment Context

The employment context of street vendors varies. Many work long hours from the same site on a daily basis. These vendors and their families typically rely on profits from vending as their primary source of household income. Other vendors rotate among two or more sites, taking advantage of different types of clientele and different patterns of urban movement over the course of the day. Some vendors work on a more part-time basis, in weekly rotating markets or as seasonal vendors of specialty items. While some rely on street vending as a regular primary or secondary occupation, others vend only when an opportunity presents itself to earn extra income.

A variety of employment statuses can be found among street vendors as well. Most vendors work as independent self-employed entrepreneurs, either with or without employees. There are also many vendors who work as contributing family members, and some work as employees of informal or even formal enterprises.2 Still others sell goods on commission for formal or informal firms. Although income levels vary, surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of street vendors lack access to social protection and are subject to a range of employment risks.

To see the latest news from around the globe on street vendors, visit WIEGO's news section about street vendors.

Watch a 2012 TED Talk by Robert Neuwirth, who spent four years with street vendors and came to appreciate the power and scope of this devalued economic force.

Size & Significance

Street vendors

As the most visible segment of the urban informal economy, it is indisputable that there are thousands – and in some cases, tens or hundreds of thousands – of street vendors in most big cities of the developing world. Yet it is exceedingly difficult to produce accurate estimates of the number of street traders in any given city. In some countries, official statistics on street vendors are available, though they likely underestimate the total number of people engaged in street vending. Some of the particular challenges of estimating the size of the street vending population are explored further below.

Official Statistics on Street Vendors

Where national level statistics do exist, they usually place the share of street vendors in total non-agricultural employment at between 2 and 9 per cent (ILO 2002: 52). This share is significantly higher in African cities: street vendors account for 15.3 per cent of total employment in Cotonou, Benin; 16.4 per cent in Bamako, Mali; and 20 per cent in Lomé, Togo. As a share of total informal employment, street traders generally account for 15-25 per cent in African cities, 10-15 per cent in Asian cities, and 5-10 per cent in Latin American cities (see Table 1).

Table 1

Street Vendors as a Share of Total Employment
and Total Informal Employment in Cities (2001/03)

 

% of Total Employment

% of Total Informal Employment

Africa

 

 

Cotonou, Benin

15.3

18.8

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

13.6

16.7

Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire

12.7

16.0

Antananarivo, Madagascar

9.9

15.3

Bamako, Mali

16.4

19.9

Niamey, Niger

10.4

13.5

Dakar, Senegal

10.4

13.0

Lomé, Togo

20.0

24.0

Asia

 

 

Ahmedabad, India*

 

7.0

Hanoi, Vietnam**

6.0

11.3

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam**

6.2

11.3

Latin America

 

 

Buenos Aires, Argentina

2.7

5.4

Lima, Peru

5.4

9.2

*1999  /  ** 2007
Source: DIAL (2010); Esquivel (2010) 

At the national level, street vendors account for 14.6 per cent of total non-agricultural employment in South Africa, 9 per cent in Guatemala, 8 per cent in Kenya, 6 per cent in Tunisia, and 1-5 per cent in Brazil, Costa Rica, India, and Mexico (Wills 2009; ILO 2002). These figures translate into significant absolute numbers: in India, the estimated number of street traders exceeds 3.1 million, in Brazil about 2 million, and in Mexico nearly 1.3 million (Unni 2010; Budlender 2011; ILO 2002).

Below is a regional breakdown of available official statistics on street vendors: 

Africa (Herrera 2012; ILO 2002)

  • In African cities, official statistics usually estimate street traders form between 10 and 20 per cent of total employment, and 15 to 25 per cent of total informal employment.
  • Nationwide, street vendors account for 14 per cent of all informal non-agricultural employment in Ghana and 15 per cent in South Africa.
  • Informal traders – of whom about half are street traders – account for more than 40 per cent of total informal employment in Abidjan, Bamako, Cotonou, Lomé, and Ouagadougou.
  • The informal sector accounts for 85 per cent or more of total trade employment in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Kenya, Mali, and Tunisia.
  • Informal traders contribute between 46 and 70 percent of total trade value added in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Kenya, Mali, and Tunisia.
  • Women constitute more than two-thirds of street traders in the main cities of Benin, Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, and Togo, and more than half in Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal, and South Africa.

Asia

  • In India, street traders represent about 3 per cent of total non-agricultural employment. According to official statistics, this translates to more than 3.1 million street traders countrywide (Unni 2011). Unofficial estimates suggest there are closer to 10 million (Bhowmik 2010).
  • In the Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, street vendors account for over 11 per cent of total informal employment. In these cities informal traders as a whole comprise 26 and 35 per cent of total informal employment, respectively (Herrera 2012).
  • According to local authorities, NGOs and academics, there are about 90,000 street vendors in Dhaka (Bangladesh); 10,000 in Colombo (Sri Lanka); 100,000 in Bangkok (Thailand); 50,000 in Singapore; 47,000 in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia); 50,000 in Manila (Philippines); and 800,000 in Seoul (South Korea) (Bhowmik 2010).
  • The informal sector accounts for more than 90 per cent of total trade employment in India and Indonesia.
  • Women comprise over two thirds of street vendors in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In Ahmedabad, India, women account for about 10 per cent of street vendors.

Latin America

  • In Lima, Peru, street vendors account for about 9 per cent of total informal employment. This translates to about 240,000 vendors, of whom 65 per cent are women (Herrera 2012).
  • In Bogotá, Colombia, street vendors represented nearly 20 per cent of the informal labour force in 1996. The absolute number of street vendors has increased dramatically since that year, from 220,000 in 1996 to 558,000 in 2005 (Roever 2010, based on data from the national statistical department, DANE).
  • In Caracas, Venezuela, census data show that street vendors account for over 5 per cent of the total economically active population. This includes nearly 49,000 street vendors, as well as vendors who work in kiosks (4,600) and markets (8,150) (Roever 2010; García Rincón 2010).
  • Street traders comprise about 9 per cent of total non-agricultural employment in Guatemala, and 3-4 per cent of total non-agricultural employment in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela (ILO 2002).
  • Brazil is home to about 2 million informal traders (Budlender 2011; Roever 2010). In São Paulo, estimates of the total number of street vendors range from 73,000 to 100,000 (Itikawa 2010; Roever 2010).
  • Women form about 30 per cent of street vendors in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela; 45 per cent in Mexico; and 55 per cent in Guatemala (Esquivel 2010; ILO 2002).

These figures may under-count the total number of people engaged in street trading, as they can exclude those who use trading as a secondary, seasonal or temporary occupation. Because these figures come from official statistics, they may also under-report traders who fear negative consequences for revealing that they work in public space. 

Women in Street Vending

Street vending is one of the most significant categories of informal work for women. The low costs of entry and flexible hours make street vending an attractive option for poor women; for many, it is the only option.

In many countries, women represent the majority of street vendors. In Africa: women constitute more than two thirds of street traders in the main cities of Benin, Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, and Togo, and more than half in Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal, and South Africa (Herrera 2012; Budlender 2011; ILO 2002). Women also form a majority of street traders in some cities in Asia and Latin America, including Hanoi (79%), Ho Chi Minh City (67%), and Lima (65%). In only a few countries where cultural norms restrict women’s economic activities do women account for 10 per cent or less of street vendors.

Women street vendors typically earn less than men -- and in many countries, less than half as much as men. In India, for example, in 2000, women vendors earned between US $0.48-1.92 per day while men earned between US $0.80-3.28 per day (Chen and Snodgrass 2001).3 In South Africa in 2007, women’s hourly earnings on average were US $0.74 while men’s hourly earnings averaged US $0.93 (Wills 2009).4 The pattern holds in Lima, Peru, where in 2006 women vendors earned, on average, about 45 per cent of what men vendors earned.5

The Challenges of Gathering Statistics on Street Vendors

Finding reliable data on the size of the street vending population in any given city can be challenging. To begin with, official statistics on street vendors are available only in a few countries. One reason that street vendors are absent from official statistics is that national population censuses and labour force surveys often do not contain a question on “place of work” with appropriate response alternatives that would allow data analysts to identify street traders. Where they do have a question on place of work, the results are often not tabulated or disseminated. Moreover, although street vending is present in the international standard classification of occupations (ISCO-88), the categories for street traders are rarely presented in official statistics (ILO 2002: 51).

Box 1

Street Vendors And Official Statistics

Why Street Vendors May be Absent from Official Statistics

  • There is no “place of work” question in population censuses and labour force surveys.
  • The “place of work” question lacks appropriate response categories to allow data analysts to identify street traders.
  • Where there is a “place of work” question with appropriate response categories, the results are not tabulated or disseminated.
  • The occupational categories for street traders in the international standard classification of occupations (ISCO-88) are not presented in official statistics.

Why Street Vendors May be Under-Counted when Present in Official Statistics

  • Street vendors may report their “place of work” to be home rather than the street, or may not report any place of work at all.
  • Street vendors may feel uncomfortable reporting their true occupation to government interviewers.
  • Many workers use street vending as a secondary, seasonal, temporary, or part-time occupation and therefore do not report it as an occupation.

 

Even where official statistics do capture street vendors, they are likely to undercount the total number of people working as traders in any given city. Many workers use street vending as a secondary, seasonal, temporary, or part-time income-generating activity, and many labour force surveys ask only about primary occupations. Also, even where a “place of work” question is included in a survey or census questionnaire, many street vendors report their place of work to be home. Other street vendors do not report a place of work at all. In these cases, although they work as street vendors, they may not be included in official estimates of the total size of the street vending population.

Another source of undercounting is the fact that many street vendors feel uncomfortable reporting their true occupation in government surveys because of the risks they face working in public space. For example, a street vendor may report working as a “micro entrepreneur” rather than a street vendor when responding to an official government survey. Reasons behind such misrepresentation of street vending include the fear that sanctions (such as fees, confiscation of merchandise, or even jail time) could follow a report of street vending as an occupation, and the social bias in some countries against informal occupations.

Finally, even where official statistics provide the most reliable national count of street traders, they cannot always be disaggregated in ways that would be useful to urban planners and street vending organizations. Often one can distinguish between urban areas and rural areas, or metro areas and non-metro areas, but not among individual cities (outside the capital) or within areas of individual cities. In some countries, it is possible to disaggregate national labour force surveys to the level of individual cities, but only for the largest city or cities. Thus, in many cities the only data on street vendors available come from unofficial, often ad-hoc, estimates.

A 2012 publication of StreetNet International provides disaggregated analysis of known street vendors in the eThekwini Municipality (Durban, South Africa) by type of area and within areas, with sufficient observations by demographic and trader characteristics. Read Durban Street Traders.

Driving Forces & Working Conditions

Street vendors

Driving Forces

The driving forces behind street vending, as with the informal economy as a whole, are diverse. As the “dualist” school of thought argues, many of the working poor who enter street vending do so because they cannot find jobs in the formal economy. Street vending thus serves as a refuge occupation, where low barriers to entry make it possible to earn a subsistence income. Vendors of fruits and vegetables and other low-end goods often fall into this category.

Others enter street vending because it offers a more flexible or otherwise attractive employment option than wage or salaried work (as the “voluntarist” school of thought contends), and/or because they see it as a way to avoid the costs of operating a formal storefront business (as argued by the “legalist” school) (Chen 2006). For many women, street vending is a more viable option even where wage work is available, because the flexibility of working hours allows them to fulfil their family need for dependent care.

Like other occupational groups within the informal economy, the street vending sector seems to swell during economic downturns. This was the case during the recent global economic crisis. In mid 2009, the partners in the Inclusive Cities project conducted focus group interviews with informal workers in 10 developing countries. The research found that many street vendors experienced a significant drop in consumer demand, while reporting the greatest increase in competition, as the newly unemployed turned to vending as a possible source of income. The findings of this study are presented in a report entitled “No Cushion to Fall Back On: The Global Economic Crisis and Informal Workers.”

A second round of research was undertaken in 2010 and most of the same interviewees were revisited. By early 2010, demand had still not recovered for most vendors, yet many had recently raised their prices due to higher costs of goods. Also, competition had increased from new entrants and from large retailers, who tried aggressively during the crisis to attract customers. The findings of the second round are presented in a report entitled Coping with Crises: Lingering Recession, Rising Inflation, and the Informal Workforce.” For more information on this topic and personal stories, see the Informal Economy/Links with Economic Crisis page

However, economic crisis cannot be the only explanation for the large numbers of street vendors, as they have been a mainstay of cities throughout the world for centuries. Part of their existence is demand-driven: when constraints of time, space or resources do not allow consumers to purchase from stores – or when consumers prefer an open-air environment for shopping – they seek out street vendors instead. Some of the more entrepreneurial-minded enter street vending to respond to known demand.

Working Conditions and Occupational Hazards

Street vendors face unique kinds of livelihood risks because of the legal, physical, and socio-cultural environment in which they work. The most pressing and ongoing risk for many street vendors is the possibility that local government authorities will forcibly remove them from the streets or confiscate their merchandise. This risk of displacement often increases in the context of elections, mega events,6 or efforts to beautify historic city centres.7 Just like formal business operators, street vendors are less productive in unstable institutional environments where rules are irregular and unpredictable.

  • To learn about the resistance strategies used by street vendors in Mexico City’s Historical Center against what the author calls “Entrepreneurial Urban Governance,” read Veronica Crossa's article.
  • Read a story about a displaced tea vendor in Ahmedabad, India, his family, and their successful negotiation with the Radisson Hotel here.
  • For an analysis of human rights violations against street vendors in São Paulo, see this report (in Portuguese) from the Centro Gaspar Garcia de Direitos Humanos of São Paulo, Brazil.

Street traders face more routine occupational hazards as well. Many must lift and haul heavy loads of goods to and from their point of sale each day. The physical environments in which they work typically lack proper infrastructure, such as clean running water, toilets, and solid waste removal. Street vendors are exposed to physical harm from the improper provision of fire safety equipment and the improper regulation of traffic in commercial areas. They are also exposed to a high concentration of air pollutants and to inclement weather.8 These physical risks take a particular toll on young children who must accompany their mothers to vend in the streets.

Income and earnings risks are also common to many street vendors. Harassment on the part of local authorities – including evictions, confiscation of merchandise, and demands for bribes – is a common source of income risk for street vendors. Vendors of perishable goods are more vulnerable to losses than vendors of non-perishables, and vendors of seasonal goods must cope with fluctuations in supply and demand over time (Chen and Snodgrass 2001). Women street vendors who care for dependents also experience income loss when they have fewer hours to vend because of care responsibilities. Those who must work long hours – sometimes 14-16 hours a day to make ends meet – compound risks to their health by spending the majority of their time in the streets.

Generally speaking, street vendors’ legal status can act as a bridge between their employment conditions and the range of employment risks they face (see figure below). A vendor with a fixed structure in a designated market, for example, may be more likely to hold a license or permit, and in turn would be less exposed to certain kinds of risks. Likewise, a street vendor who works as an employee selling a particular kind of product, such as newspapers, may be better protected by law and therefore less vulnerable. Obtaining legal status of some kind is therefore a key demand of street trading organizations in many cities. Read an account of how a change in status improved the life of a street vendor in Durban.

Street Vendors Employment Conditions Chart

Policies & Programmes

Street Vendor

Policy Debates

The practice of street vending generates enormous controversy in cities throughout the world (Bromley 2000). As with other occupational groups within the informal economy, the core debates over street vending revolve around the idea of formalization. Though advocates of formalization can be found on all sides of these debates, there is little consensus over what formalization should entail. There is also increasing recognition that formalization is likely not an appropriate path for all street vendors, and that street vending organizations in cities all over the world are in fact engaged in a constant process of negotiating the terms of their formality (Roever 2005).

Debates over street vending involve registration and taxation, individual vs. collective rights, health and safety regulations – especially where food is involved – and urban planning and governance. For a full discussion on these debates, see Street Vending: Key Debates

Policy Responses

The policy environment for street traders in any given locality is a function of both the legal context and the political environment. In terms of the legal context, many countries have constitutional provisions related to the individual rights to work and to private property, and the collective rights to public space and economic association, that impinge on street vendors. Aside from these constitutional provisions, however, very few countries have a national policy on street vending (India is the most visible exception; see below). More commonly, provincial and local level by-laws and ordinances govern street trade. These laws and ordinances change frequently, and commonly result from urban planning processes that exclude street traders and their organizations.

The political environment also influences the particular mix of policies toward street vending in each locality. In large cities and metropolitan areas, efforts to attract foreign capital through campaigns for “world class city” status often result in policies that threaten the livelihoods of street vendors. Where vendors lack voice in the policy-making process and visibility in policy circles, their ability to influence political outcomes is limited. In local jurisdictions, policies toward street vending are contingent and fluid, ebbing and flowing according to election results and bureaucratic currents.

In some countries, street vending organizations have campaigned successfully for inclusive planning practices. For example, the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) successfully campaigned for a National Policy on Street Vending, first passed in 2004 and then revised in 2009. In 2014, the upper house of the Indian Parliament passed the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act.

Inclusive planning processes at the city-wide level include the Durban Informal Economy Policy (Lund and Skinner 2004) and the Warwick Junction project, also in Durban, South Africa (Dobson and Skinner 2009). In some local contexts, street vending organizations have become influential in negotiations over city planning (Brown and Lyons 2010).

Programmatic Responses

Member-based organizations (MBOs) of street vendors and supporting organizations like WIEGO have developed ways to strengthen vendors’ voice in policy making, increase street vendors’ visibility in statistics, and promote the validity of street vending via legal recognition of vendors and their organizations.

Efforts to strengthen the voice of street vendors are organized around the activities of member-based organizations. At the international level, StreetNet International supports vendors’ efforts to strengthen their policy voice by promoting the exchange of information and ideas across countries and regions. At the national level, organizations such as Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and NASVI in India and KENASVIT in Kenya have brought vendors’ voices to the national policy arena through legal and political strategies. At the local level, projects such as the Warwick Junction Urban Renewal Project in Durban, South Africa and the Street Vendor Project in New York City have helped street vendors develop a more participatory, consultative model of urban policy-making.

WIEGO supports efforts to strengthen the voice of street vendors through its various programme areas and through its involvement in the Inclusive Cities project. WIEGO's Organization & Representation Programme has published, in conjunction with StreetNet, a series of resource books outlining practical ideas for organizing in the informal economy. The Inclusive Cities project also brings together resources and tools, including briefing notes on better practices and research reports on organizing.

Though street vendors’ visibility in statistics remains limited, WIEGO and its partners, in the Inclusive Cities and other projects, have begun to raise the statistical profile of street vendors through a variety of activities. The WIEGO Working Paper Series has published country- and city-level statistical profiles that identify street vendors in official statistics (e.g. Wills 2009; Esquivel 2010). WIEGO Statistical Briefs present summaries of other statistical information available on street vendors.To help local efforts to produce statistics, WIEGO's Urban Policies Programme has generated a set of guidelines for planning street trader censuses (Roever 2011). StreetNet International has conducted its own census of street traders in Durban, South Africa.

Establishing legal recognition for street vendors and their organizations is a key strategy in programmatic efforts to promote the validity of street trading. SEWA and NASVI, for example, have used the courts in India to establish legal recognition of street vendors’ rights with the backing of the Supreme Court. WIEGO’s Organization & Representation Programme has backed these efforts through the Law and Informality Project, and WIEGO is developing an observatory of laws that includes laws on street vendors from around the world. Outside of the WIEGO network, a handful of support NGOs have undertaken initiatives to improve the status of street and market vendors. For one example, read a case study of the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund in Liberia here.

Organization & Voice

Street vendors

Street vending organizations can be found in cities worldwide. Some vendors are organized according to the urban space where they work, such as a particular street, block, market, or area. Other vendors are organized according to the product they sell. Most organizations play a dual role: internally, they assist their members in securing a space on the street, accessing credit and savings mechanisms, and upgrading their skills; and externally, they help mediate vendors’ relationship with local authorities.

Although street vending organizations have existed for decades, some new organizational forms are taking shape in response to changing times. One example is StreetNet International, a global alliance of street vendors whose aim is to promote the exchange of information and ideas on critical issues facing street vendors worldwide. Read about some of StreetNet International's organizing activities. There are also many examples of innovative organizations at the local and national levels. SEWA of India and the Red de Mujeres (Women’s Network) of Peru specifically address the concerns of women street vendors, who in many cities form the majority.

Street vending organizations also face many challenges. Because many street vendors work long hours and generate little income, they find it difficult to devote time to their organizations. Some organizations also struggle to build durable democratic institutions where everyone’s voice can be heard. Increasingly, street vendors and their organizations also face more intense competition in liberalized economies. Nonetheless, the social networks and interpersonal connections among street traders offer many opportunities for creative forms of collaboration (Aliaga 2002; Bayat 2004; Lindell, ed. 2010).


This includes, for example, buhoneros (Venezuela), camelôs (Brazil), ambulantes (Peru), and many others. There are also local terms for specific kinds of street vendors, such as tiangueros (Mexico), who work in weekly rotating street markets.

Street vendors thus correspond primarily to cells 3, 5, and 6 in the ILO’s conceptual framework for the informal economy (ILO 2002; Hussmanns 2004). The small minority of vendors who are employees of formal firms would fall in cell 2. For an account of street vendors who work as employees of formal firms in Mexico City, see Caroline Stamm, “Firmes Multinationales, Commerce Ambulant et Mobilité à Mexico”(Espaces et Sociétés No. 135, 2008/4: 63-78).

3 Calculations are based on 2000 annual average exchange rates and hourly earnings averages assume an 8-hour day. This assumption may overestimate average hourly earnings as many street vendors work more than 8 hours per day.

4 Calculations are based on 2000 prices and 2000 annual average exchange rates.

5 Roever and Aliaga (2008), based on data from the National Household Survey (ENAHO) of 2006. Hourly earnings averages are based on a 40-hour work week, which was the average reported among women street vendors surveyed.

6 See, for example, “The Games versus the People,” Economic Times (18 September 2010), with regard to the Commonwealth Games in India.

7 See, among many others, Bromley and Mackie (2009), Crossa (2009), and Middleton (2003).

8 For an example of how inclement weather can threaten vendors’livelihoods, see S. Aishwara, “Hawkers' Livelihood Hit by Incessant Rain,” The Hindu (7 December 2010).