In this interview, StreetNet International Coordinator Oksana Abboud talks about how and why street vendors became organized and her hopes for the world of work.
Street vending has been popular, visible and relevant for more than 100 years, but until fairly recently, street vendors were not organized into membership-based organizations, unions or associations. The nature of the work doesn’t allow for workers to stay in one place, especially if we are talking about public space as a working space. This was a big factor in the drive to be organized. There were other concerns too – the lack of recognition of street vendors as workers who contribute enormously to national economies, lack of respect for them as human beings and, in some countries, negative stigmas as nuisances or even criminals.
2022 marks the 20th anniversary of StreetNet – since its establishment in Durban, South Africa – and we are very proud of it. Of course, WIEGO played a key role in the creation of StreetNet. WIEGO’s leadership at the time recognized the crucial need for an international umbrella to unite and support street vendors around the world. WIEGO gave us its hand and supported us in establishing a global alliance of street and market vendors – StreetNet International.
We are witnessing a rapid growth in technology and, in the next 25 years, this will bring big changes to the world of work. I don’t see the profession of street vendors disappearing – the technological revolution means more formal jobs will be lost, which means informality will continue to grow. We should position ourselves to take advantage of this inevitability with new strategies and approaches. We might see integration of street vendors into digital platforms, with vendors finding their niche in using the technology for sustainability, development and livelihood purposes.
I believe there could be a shift, with our sector gaining more recognition and respect for their human and workers’ rights and their role as economic players.
Street vending is definitely more than just an essential contribution to local and national economies, it is part of the city infrastructure, culture and even street art. Food vendors are a good example. As well as providing food and food products to the urban poor, they preserve and maintain the traditions and culture of the nation. They cook in front of you, they demonstrate their amazing skills and recipes, and display all the delicious cuisine that we love and like to return to have it again.
StreetNet is growing – expanding its borders and attracting new members. WIEGO has connected us with like-minded organizations and institutions, providing the space for building international solidarity among all workers engaged in informal employment. We use WIEGO’s research and databases in our advocacy work.
With WIEGO’s support, one of StreetNet’s affiliates in Liberia managed to get a project on building capacity and advocating for public space as a working place – and managed even to sign a memorandum of understanding with the local city council.
In the next 25 years, I would like to see WIEGO grow its training, for example, through the School it has started. It has so much expertise and can train on how to organize and how to negotiate for those in informal employment. At the same time, we will draw closer together for the sake of our joint constituency, which is informally employed workers.
It means a lot to be part of a global network for the vulnerable, for the unrecognized – and to be part of such a highly respected network with a high level of organization. WIEGO gives us recognition and confidence at international and other levels. It empowers us and brings us into more unity. We feel part of a big family.
On a personal note, Oksana – who with her two daughters had to flee her home in Ukraine after its invasion by Russia – said she appreciates all the help she has received from the people of WIEGO. “WIEGO has a very human face… I feel not alone, which is very important, and in this way I think we are on the right path with our humanity.”
- This has been edited for brevity. As part of our 25th anniversary celebrations, we are profiling WIEGO’s institutional members – trade unions, cooperatives and associations of informal workers that are active in WIEGO.