Invisible Livelihoods in the Global South

1st December 2023

Contribution by Rosina Marquez Reiter (The Open University, UK) &  Ben Evans (The Open University, UK)

Medellín, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires constitute major tourist destinations in the so-called Global South. Medellín and Buenos Aires attracted 1,400,000 and 1,500,000 in 2022 respectively while Rio typically receives 5,000,000 (2 million being foreign tourists) each year. Tourists to these regions might use rail systems to navigate city metropolises; visit the awe inspiring Plaza Botero and the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín, or the Princess of the Sea: Copacabana Beach, which frames Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, visitors might be unaware of how thousands of people living in these cities have to forge precarious livelihoods in public space, for their incorporation into the mainstream labour market is not facilitated by their respective governments. Vendors in public space, generally referred to as ‘street vendors’, are those purveying:

…articles, goods, wares, food items or merchandise of everyday use or offering services to the general public, in a street, lane, side walk, footpath, pavement, public park or any other public place or private area, from a temporary built up structure or by moving from place to place to place

Law Insider

Vendors attempt to draw attention to themselves among the threshold of bodily encounters that characterises urban movement and diversity in these cities with a view to converting pedestrians, passengers and other city dwellers into potential customers. They typically operate outside of the formal economy; the portion of a nation’s economy that includes businesses which are formally registered, taxed, licensed, and regulated. Coexisting alongside formalised economic activity are an increasing multiplicity of other income sources.  One such source is the popular or solidary economy which facilitates those with limited access to waged labour to generate a livelihood using their own skills, abilities and dynamic strategies.

The work of vendors in public space is generally regarded as surplus, disorderly and as cluttering for the urban environment. This leads to the eviction, persecution and loss of income for vendors as they make a living in public space.

Although organisations such as the UN, ILO, WIEGO and StreetNet International continue to lobby governments in the Global South and beyond to ensure that vendors are not criminalised to work for their right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family, much work remains to understand vendors’ everyday struggles to sustain their livelihoods. The Open University is carrying out research which seeks to make known the lived experiences of street vendors working the Global South in real-time. Research led by Professor Rosina Márquez Reiter and funded via the university’s Open Societal Challenges programme is building on-the-ground relationships with vendors and their unionised cooperatives in the Global South. This ambitious work seeks to capture empirical evidence of the daily working practices of vendors in public space. Its aim is to better understand the normative coordination of vendors’ work activity and the collective regulation that underlies it. This research is unearthing data which supports the legitimisation and celebration of these skilful yet precarious practices which are part the cultural fabric of these cities.

An exploratory video-ethnography has been conducted by Márquez Reiter. This includes video-recordings of vendors’ daily working practices in real-time in Medellín, Rio de Janerio and Buenos Aires. The video-recordings are used as a form of documentation and an analytic tool. They allow us to capture snapshots of these workers’ ‘worldings’ and unsettle the disciplinary power of speech over other communicative resources.  Preliminary findings have evidence the innate deftness and considerable adroitness necessary to successfully manage time and space constraints in pursuit of a satisfactory customer service experience . This entails:

  • high levels of persuasive skill, both verbally and corporeally;
  • a deep understanding of customers’ needs and product placement;
  • the ability to adapt their service and procure the right product(s) to suit customer needs (sometimes from fellow vendors) as well as the capacity to adapt to new  locations in the city;
  • a pledge to find products that are not immediately available anywhere.

Meanwhile, vendors report an ever-present fear of prosecution and persecution. Authority prosecution (from the police and/or council) is likely if vendors sell outside officially allocated licensed hours, or without a relevant license, even if there are clients waiting to buy. Added to these anxieties, is a fear of continued displacement, which is also posed by city gentrification processes. Yet a further concern, especially but not limited to the city centre of Medellín, is the constant state of watchfulness vendors must maintain as they witness a range of criminal/unlawful activities in public space as they go about their honest daily work.

Vendors also provide a service to segments of the population who may not be able to purchase similar products elsewhere. Despite the conditions of structural vulnerability that vendors face, their work creates jobs for other workers, such as merchanside storers and itinerant food and drink vendors.

Vendors’ work also supports other businesses such as those in the formal economy, especially when they buy their merchandise from wholesalers. Vendors and those who supply these basic services to them are part of the circular economy that characterises the rich heritage of these cities.

So, the next time you visit one of these beautiful cities, perhaps take interest in those organised, professional and collaborative vending practices which help to sustain you and the cultural fabric of that region? Perhaps you’d like some corn on the beach in the sun?