How are Peru’s street vendors facing COVID-19?

Hero Image
Street vendors in Lima
Published Date
Ana Carolina Ogando, Olga Abizaid

... with Focal City Lima

With a budget equivalent to 12% of its GDP, Peru put together the largest COVID-19 pandemic response package in Latin America. Its main intention was to provide some relief to the people most vulnerable during the pandemic. As of March 16, 2020, the country implemented a strict lockdown to combat the spread of the disease. Despite the government’s willingness to address the health and economic crisis, informal workers are being hit hard.

The concrete challenges of adapting to the lockdown and accessing aid from the government have cost vendors needed earnings, while intensifying the stigma against these workers. Narratives that dehumanize and blame street vendors for spreading coronavirus are on the rise. These draw from historic negative perceptions of street vendors, and are all too often used to push for exclusionary urban policies, as was the case with the mass evictions in Aviación Ave the district of La Victoria in the lead up to the PanAm Games in 2019.

As the pandemic is used as a further exclusionary artifice, WIEGO Focal City Lima, along with workers and other partners, are calling for fairer ways to collectively find solutions to the challenges created by the pandemic.

In this Q&A, WIEGO’s Focal City Lima team members Carmen Roca and Edith Anampa sat with us to share reflections on the situation of street vendors in Lima, recent advocacy efforts, barriers to accessing the federal government’s relief measures for these workers, and strategies for challenging narratives that serve to further penalize vendors during the pandemic.

Could you briefly tell us what is happening in Lima right now with the government’s sanitary measures to control the spread of COVID-19?

Lima Team: Since March 16th – and valid until June 30th – the government has implemented strict lockdown measures enforced by police and army patrols. We cannot leave our homes, except to go out for food, medicine or to the bank. The government has also worked to increase ten-fold the number of hospital beds that have a respirator. And while this was a proactive and quick effort for a country like ours, the hospitals have already collapsed.

The government has spoken about cash grants to compensate vulnerable people for the loss of incomes due to the sanitary measures. Could you tell us about the government's proposal? Can street vendors benefit from this relief measure?

Lima Team: Most of the people who we work with that make their livelihoods in public spaces have low incomes. While they are not in extreme poverty, they do live in conditions of poverty.

Initially, the government released a cash grant of about US$110 for people who are in poverty and extreme poverty so that they would stay at home. The population could confirm their eligibility by using their national identity card number in a government set-up webpage. The main challenge was that, contrary to the data on rural areas, the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion did not have complete lists in urban areas to distribute the cash grant, because there was no more extreme poverty there. Only a handful of workers with whom we work have received this first cash grant.

Given the wide-spread understanding that own-account informal workers, including street vendors, were the ones most adversely affected by the lockdown, multiple actors, including WIEGO, and people in the media, pushed for extending the cash grant to them. The government responded with a cash grant for own-account workers called bono independiente.

However, to identify the beneficiaries for this grant, the government had to resort to multiple ministries’ lists to ensure that potential beneficiaries were not already being covered by other government programmes (Ministry of Social Development); were not working in the private or public sector (Ministry of Labour); were not earning more than US$330/month (Tax office and through the entity supervising banks); or did not have a public contract (Ministry of Finance). Unfortunately, the government’s decision to use only its official data to define the beneficiaries limited the outreach of the cash grant, leaving many informal workers out.

Now, the government has said it will issue a universal family cash grant for households with no salaried family members, amounting to about US$220 if paid in one installment or US$110 if paid in two installments at 15 days intervals. However, they made the announcement three weeks ago, and, so far, it hasn't been issued. The government also transferred money to all the municipalities to distribute food aid to the poorest areas, but this has yet to materialize either.

So, many people can no longer abide by a quarantine due to financial and social issues.

What have been some of the immediate implications for street vendors in Lima?

Lima Team: It’s a very complicated situation. Depending on what they sell, the situation is different. Only those selling essential products, such as food, are allowed to work – be it on the streets or in markets. Among those selling non-essential goods, many are facing important losses or have switched to selling produce to be able to work. But even vendors selling food are facing challenges. In the area of Aviación Ave – still an important commercial hub for food – street vendors were evicted and had their merchandise confiscated and destroyed.

There are older merchants who are afraid of going out to sell in the streets and getting infected.

There are older merchants who are afraid of going out to sell in the streets and getting infected. They likely are some of the few who have small savings or can rely on family members. These workers are concerned about the growing difficulties of selling on the street with the authorities and the army chasing them away under the premise that they are the ones spreading the virus – the same is happening to the market vendors.

Municipalities are reacting differently. In Lima North, in the municipality of Carabayllo, vendors have been given a good space to work and are paying an affordable fee, whereas in the municipality of Comas, street vendors from a street market (paradita) were told their space was going to be sanitized, and instead saw their stalls bulldozed, despite the existence of an ongoing dialogue between the municipality and the vendors.

Street and market vendors also feel that they are facing unfair competition from supermarkets during the pandemic. While they can only sell essential goods, supermarkets can sell all sorts of products. And even if there have been cases of COVID-19 contagions among supermarket workers, they have not been labelled as “hubs of infection” the way informal vendors have been.

Could you tell us about street vendors’ relevance in the daily life of Lima’s different districts?

Lima Team: Some leaders have mentioned that many workers go out to work, but that many of their clients don’t have enough money to pay for the goods. And the street vendors can't stop handing out food because these are the workers’ lifelong customers.

This reveals how important street vendors are for all citizens in the city. They guarantee food security for the poorest people. And, often, these vendors sell their products in locations that connect people in the city because they are located halfway between the population that lives in peripheral areas and the markets.

What are street vendor organizations doing in response to the pandemic and the restrictions they face?

Lima Team: In many cases, vendors have implemented innovative efforts to protect workers and the public. Some merchants are using chlorine and also practicing social distancing at the worksite.

But this is very different from what is being said in the media or even what the authorities are claiming. In both these cases, we only hear that workers are a serious source of contagion.

A customer waits at a distance in the Coop San Pedro market, where workers have self-organized to provide protections to customers and vendors, without government support.

Vendors from La Victoria have also filed a complaint for abuse for the confiscation of their goods before the Prosecutor's Office. Some street vendors have mobilized to demand the municipal government the restitution of their merchandise, and to attract media attention. However, authorities want to impose fines equivalent to nearly US$700 to recuperate confiscated goods, which is impossible for workers to pay.

Market vendors, with Lima Focal City support, held a press conference on May 20 to demonstrate their willingness to share responsibilities in managing the propagation of the disease and demand their inclusion in the commission overseeing markets.

Caption: In April 2020, worker leaders across occupational sectors joined hands to create the “Workers Combating COVID” campaign, which calls for a set of common and sector-specific demands, including: access to the cash “bono,” personal protective equipment, and dialogue and cooperation with authorities, among other demands.

Could you share with us some of the work that WIEGO Focal City Lima has been doing in support of street vendors?

Lima Team: We advocated with authorities for the Bono independiente and shared MBOs’ lists of workers – including 10,000 names of workers from multiple sectors – with the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion and the Ministry of Environment to seek their inclusion.

We also launched a media campaign. Given existing mobility restrictions, media is shaping public perceptions, and can influence government decisions. Our goal is to demonstrate that street vendors are organized, willing to work with the authorities, and that they have implemented sanitary measures. We are working closely with various experts on street vending and markets, like Elsie Guerrero and Themis Castellanos, to share experiences. We have also advocated to allow organized street markets (paraditas) to work in open spaces to reduce overcrowding in markets. We see the press conference with the Market Vendors’ Federation as a test to inform our strategies in support of street vendors.

Caption: Image of the campaign advocating for partnerships between the authorities and street vendors’ organizations for the establishment of street markets (paraditas) as a means to ensure food security and reduce overcrowding and the need to travel long distances to buy supplies.

Building a more resilient city together

Vendors in Lima, Peru, have a deep understanding of the risks associated with working on the streets and in markets during the pandemic. Many have had to navigate these risks as they continue to provide essential goods and services during the public health crisis. They have already been taking measures to reduce risk for customers and vendors alike and are advocating to be part of the solution.

But they are calling for the government to work with them as legitimate collaborators in finding solutions to keep critical food supply chains functioning, and ensure safety and security in the process.

As the municipality works toward building a more resilient city post COVID-19, it is essential to ensure the fundamental right to work. Informal workers depend on their daily earnings to survive – and the public depends on them to make food available. Hence, the right to work must reflect both the space to exercise this right and the implementation of health protocols to mitigate risks.

But this can only happen if there are municipal investments and coordinated actions with workers to ensure healthier, safer public spaces that serve all residents of the city. Street and market vendors in Lima have been calling for these investments for years. While the pandemic exacerbates deep-rooted structural inequalities in cities, it can also serve as a moment to rethink practical and appropriate interventions that involve the grassroots community and worker groups who are getting hit the hardest. Ultimately, it is an opportunity to re-envision cities where the needs of all citizens are placed front and center.

Feature Photo Credit: Juan Arredondo/Getty Images Reportage

Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group