Street micro entrepreneurs: Bane or boon?

street vendor

by Jasmine B. Barrios

(first published in the Philippine Online Chronicles)

It was like an excerpt from an action flick. A big truck suddenly stopped in the middle of the rush hour crowd. The goons carrying clubs and bats got off and chased the poor vendors. At the sight of the attacking gang, the vendors haphazardly packed their goods and clung to them like dear life as they scurried off to different directions like mice hunted by cats. Those caught were held off like criminals. They cried in agony as they watched their merchandise being doused with kerosene.

A day after then MMDA Chairman Bayani Fernando was on TV. He explained that sidewalks are for pedestrians. Vendors peddling in the streets go against the law. Sadly, Malacañang condoned the abrasiveness.

I was one of the bystanders who witnessed the horrible event. The hoodlums were actually employed by the government for the demolition job.  Something did not click right. Isn’t the government supposed to protect the helpless?

Superficially, the man had a point. But there is more to it than hawkers trampling on the pedestrians’ right of way. They are actually left with little choice.

More than 25 percent of the Filipino population of 98,735,000are poor. They are poor because they are unemployed. They are unemployed because they are uneducated. They are uneducated because they do not have the means to finish school. It is a vicious cycle.

Some non-government organizations and the Department of Social Welfare and Development may have conditional cash transfer mechanisms to assist the underprivileged but only a handful benefits from them. It still boils down to the deprived members of society helping themselves for subsistence.  Peddling in the streets is the best and decent thing to do to survive.

The enterprising lot borrows money from the creditors for capital, usually the “Bombay” (Indian) who goes around offering 5-6 loans with an interest of 20 percent. Borrow P1000 and return P1,200 in installment. The vendor has to earn for the daily payment and keep a little for the revolving fund to replenish the stocks. Whatever is left of the meagre profit is used to buy the barest essential: food. That is why the Pinoys have this saying, “isang kahig, isang tuka” (one scrape, one peck).

To sell, they have to find a place to make a sale quickly. That is where the crowded streets come into play. Paying for a decent “legal” stall is out of the question. With an average net income of P100 per day, how could they possibly pay a daily rental of at least P500?

Unemployment rate in the Philippines is pegged at 7.3 % and most of it comes from the less fortunate strata of society. The very least the government could do is to offer jobs inbusiness process outsourcing (BPO’s) which usually employ college graduates. The destitute does not qualify or even have enough money for fare to reach the BPO’s door steps.

Street micro entrepreneurs may be a bane to government and some sectors but they are definitely a boon to those living in poverty. This, despite the fact that they have to tackle the dangers of the concrete jungle with “kotong” cops and corrupt barangay officials ready to pounce, weathering  heat and rain, and toiling on sleepless nights. It is better off than scavenging garbage for “kalakal” (trade) of plastics, boxes, paper and tin cans to put food on the table.

Mang Francis is a common fixture around the Quezon City Memorial Circle. His cowboy hat makes him distinct from the rest of the vendors. There is some air of dignity around him even if others look down at his little fruit business. Government employees in the area get their daily slices of fruit from him at 10 pesos, choosing from a variety of watermelons, melons, pineapple and even honeydew. I dared not ask his daily profit. My mother taught us that asking about one’s compensation is unethical. A man’s worth does not depend on the amount he earns.

But I did query on his personal life. His family is based in Bohol. The eldest of his brood of three is now in college. He rents a cheap room for his lodging and goes through the sacrifice of leading a lonely life away from his loved ones while trying to run his portable store along the road exposed to the elements.

Unfortunately, the mayor issued an ordinance to run after sidewalk vendors so he is always on the ready-get set-go mode. It is dejavu. Like the national government, the LGU seems to be so focused on legalities at the expense of their constituents’ lives. Clear sidewalks may be so nice to see but once the sidewalk trade is out, do they even check the increasing number of crimes in the dark alleys and backstreets?

Legislators and the executioners, er, the executive branch seem to totally miss out on the spirit of the law. That is, people’s welfare. This informal industry may not be a direct source of taxes but this underground economy makes up 30% to 40% of the country’s gross domestic product. Street vendors actually contribute to the nation’s progress by being productive members of society. They take to the streets for a decent living to support their family and eventually lift up their status in life.

By the way, do you know Mang Francis greatest fear?  Being caught and getting out of business. That will mean the death of his livelihood, begin the hunger spell in his family and end his  dream for brighter future for his children.

If government sees micro-entrepreneurship as a bane and is bent on wiping it off the face of the earth, it better offer an alternative boon. And quick. Because it is a matter of life and death.

Photo: “street fruit” by , c/o Flickr. Some Rights Reserved

Photo: “street vendor” by jojo nicdao, c/o Flickr. Some Rights Reserved

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