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Street Vendors: A Necessary But Unsafe Job

Coupled with the day-to-day difficulties they have faced over the years, the pandemic has meant a loss of clients and support.

Streets in Latin American countries tend to be full of life, with bustling sellers and people talking among them.

Whenever people crave something to eat or want to do some shopping, they are always near a street vendor who offers whatever service they may need. These vendors roam through select streets, offering their goods to anyone who can afford them.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected street vendors, who have had to adapt to alternative ways to push their products or services. If they do not know how to innovate, they risk becoming unemployed. This is especially dangerous in countries like Mexico, where around 50 percent of all jobs are informal.

“Before the pandemic we were doing good enough, perhaps a little more than we expected,” said Andrea Benítez, a Veracruz woman who has worked more than 25 years in street markets. “However, when the pandemic arrived, those who began selling items such as face masks and hand sanitizers began to earn more money, unlike someone like me who sells fruits.”

Millions of workers who depend on face-to-face interaction with their clients have been affected.

As less people are on the street, street vendor sales have plummeted. Moreover, the food items often carry extra risks. (Christian Valera Rebolledo / Café Words)

Usually, one of the greatest strengths of the street vendors is that people can offer their goods from house to house. However, the profession’s greatest weakness is the lack of health standards for their products, especially in regard to homemade bread, sweets, snacks or other food items, which are among the most common products.

The support that these people receive usually comes from the community where they work. Lately, however, people tend to avoid street vendors out of fear of contracting the coronavirus. Furthermore, people tend to ignore the many struggles street vendors live through.

“It is not easy,” said Benítez. “They always see us street vendors as part of easy life merchants, as if we had no struggles in our life just because they think we do not pay taxes — when we actually have to pay the local authorities so that they do not harass us while we are working. If we do not pay, the authorities force us to move, as we are ‘in the way.’”

An imitation perfume street vendor walks along a desolate boardwalk in Veracruz. In normal times, the place is packed with people. (Christian Valera Rebolledo / Café Words)

“I have been a street vendor since I was seven-years-old,” said Gavino Álvarez, a street vendor in the market area of Veracruz, Mexico. “It is not easy to work in the streets. Authorities move us around, see us as dregs of society, and humiliate us if we do not pay for their expensive permits.”

Nowadays, their situation has become even more complicated. The most difficult time for street vendors was when street vending was completely prohibited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Isolation has led to many people not having enough money to pay their rent.

Street vendors do not receive the support of the government that guarantees their safety or provides solutions to their problems. Because of this, street vendors continue to work even when it is not allowed.

“Due to the pandemic, we spent a long time closed last year,” said Álvarez. “The COVID-19 soon made our savings ran out. Moreover, selling in the streets adds the risk that the authorities can take away your merchandise. If that happens, you lose everything, including your lifestyle.”

Many vendors feel that their only way to survive and thrive during the global health crisis is to continue working, despite its risks.

(Translated and edited by Mario Vázquez. Edited by Carlin Becker.)