‘A Hungry Trader is an Angry Trader’: The Risks of Criminalizing Citizens Who Create Their Own Jobs

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A street vendor sells her wares in Monrovia, Liberia
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‘How do you expect me to make a living?’ These were the last words of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bonnazzi, who set himself alight after a local authority confiscated his scales when he refused to pay a bribe.

This tragic act started the protests that ignited the Arab Spring.

If governments cannot create jobs, yet criminalize citizens who create their own jobs, they risk social instability. In the words of the President of StreetNet International, Lorraine Sibanda, ‘a hungry trader is an angry trader’.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 77 per cent of the workforce is in informal employment because there are no jobs. With deindustrialization, the rise of artificial intelligence, and growing financial sectors in the developed world, this is not going to change. 

With no prospect of employment, citizens are creating their own jobs. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 43 per cent of workers in informal employment turn to informal trade. In the absence of formal markets, traders create informal markets, hawk their goods and set up stalls on pavements, in the public spaces where their customers are. 

Yet governments routinely refuse to engage with informal vendors to discuss an enabling legal framework to regulate their use of public space. Instead, governments see vendors and other workers in the informal economy as a source of income only. The Kenyan government, for example, recently proposed bolstering the presence of tax agents, primarily to target workers in the informal economy.

Or, governments pursue “urban renewal programmes” that ride roughshod over the dignity, livelihoods and rights of the working poor. Branded as “development” and in pursuit of attaining status as a “world class city”, their policies perpetuate colonial legacies.

The spirit of colonialism lives on 

The colonial masters enacted health, sanitation, nuisance and vagrancy laws to regulate who should be allowed to use public space, and on what terms. This spirit lives on. For example, a recent government report in Senegal describes a proposed Bill’s objectives as keeping “undesirables” from the streets, and regulating the way traders, porters, street acrobats and car guards use public space. Their activities were described as a “serious threat to the country’s prestige” and “dangerously incompatible” with the nation's aspirations to become a hospitable tourist destination.

These attitudes toward the working poor are perpetuated in programmes funded by the World Bank. In October 2021, Ghana’s President Akufo-Addo launched the World Bank-funded “Let’s make Accra work again”. The campaign gained huge public support as residents bought into the idea of Accra becoming the “cleanest city in Africa”. The Greater Accra Regional Coordinating Council, composed of 29 local authorities from the Greater Accra Region, was responsible for implementing the campaign. Each local authority gazetted sanitation by-laws which authorized the forcible removal of thousands of street vendors from their trading sites because of their “unsanitary activities”. Similar scenarios are playing out across other African cities, including Kampala, Uganda; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Dakar, Senegal. 

This erasure of informal traders from public space is puzzling since they make significant social and economic contributions.

  • They create jobs for themselves, and provide work for security guards, porters and people to clean their trading sites.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, 18 African governments recognized informal food vendors as essential workers because they are vital to national food security.  
  • Vendors contribute to city coffers: tourists patronize informal markets, and vendors pay daily and monthly tolls and fees.

Inclusive governance of public space 

African governments can learn from India. India is a front-runner on how governments can engage informal traders as stakeholders in the use of public space. The story starts with street vendors taking the Mumbai local authority to court for refusing to give vendors permits to trade, and for continually confiscating their goods, demanding bribes, and arresting them. 

In a ground-breaking judgment in 1985, the Indian Supreme Court interpreted the right to life to include a right to trade. If the state does not create employment, argued the court, it cannot deny citizens the right to create their own livelihood “upon which their very existence depends”.   

In a subsequent case, the court rejected the Delhi local authority’s arguments that trading hinders pedestrians, adds to congestion, and destroys the character of the city and ordered the local authority to allocate vendors spaces to trade. The Court recognized street vendors’ contribution to the economy and to consumers.  

Fast forward to 2014 to the Street Vendors Act, which governs the spaces vendors work in. It obliges local authorities to designate public space to street vendors; to create town vending committees; and to produce a plan that identifies vending zones. All parties with an interest in public space are represented on the town vending committees: resident associations; government departments; banks; market associations; and, of course, street vendors.

The right to work

To be sure, African governments are competing for foreign direct investment, and “smart cities” and “world class cities” are part of a global development agenda. However, most African governments are signatories to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights: both include a “right to work”. The UN Economic and Social Council, which oversees the implementation of the Covenant, has stated that the right to work belongs to each person, and encompasses all forms of work, whether it’s independent work, or dependent wage and paid work. 

The International Commission of Jurists submitted a report to the UN Council arguing that, in the absence of waged employment, the right to work should be interpreted to mean that governments must create an enabling regulatory framework for workers in informal employment, such as street vendors. The UN Council agreed.

How to realize the right to work and attract investment 

How might African states marry these competing needs – to attract investment and to allow vendors to work in public spaces? The member states of the International Labour Organization have agreed to Recommendation 204, which provides some clues. 

R204 recognizes that public space is a workplace. It also provides guidance for street vendors and local authorities to reach solutions together through collective negotiations. Indeed, the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations and local authorities in more than 20 towns and territories in Zimbabwe have signed Memoranda of Understanding that lay the groundwork for local authorities and street vendors to reach solutions together. 

Street vendors have a right to work and governments must provide vendors with regulated access to public space. African governments that treat citizens who create their own jobs as unsanitary, undesirable and disposable must remember that history has shown James Baldwin was right when he said “the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose”.

Top photo: A street vendor sells her wares in Monrovia, Liberia. Credit: M Agyemang


Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group
Informal Economy Theme