By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” June 10, 2022)
The vexing issue of vending is headline news again. This follows the government’s dreadfully wicked and callous decision to direct its security forces to destroy the structures outside Massy Supermarket at Arnos Vale. The authority’s decision to command the police to destroy and discard the produce of the poor and needy vendors compounded the cruel act.
Can there be a weighty argument that vendors offer stiff competition to supermarkets and other businesses around which they sell? Massy is a multi-million dollar business that sells 100s of items compared to most vendors whose products, mostly fruits and vegetables, may be valued at no more than EC$1,500. Therefore, the insistence that vendors offer unfair competition to businesses reflects a pro-business and anti-poor bias that disregards the dismal economic reality in our country.
Political parties have turned vending into political football. This malicious attempt by politicians to exploit vulnerable people must stop. Politicians cannot encourage vendors while in opposition and disdainfully smash them when they gain power.
The issue of vending is not unique to St Vincent. Vending is uniquely related to unemployment, poverty and the inability of modern societies to meet the needs of their citizens. Vending is the response of a desperate yet creative and entrepreneurial section of our population to survive, thus keeping body and soul.
To understand what drives the vending problem in SVG, we should ponder these facts. One out of every three persons in SVG lives in poverty. According to the World Bank, youth unemployment is over 40%. The government celebrates, as a towering achievement, that poor relief payments of up to EC$250 are issued each month to over 6,000 Vincentians. At least twice per year, the government gleefully announces that it employs over 6,000 Vincentians for the paltry sum of EC$240 to clean the streets and roadways for seven to 10 days of work.
That’s the mountain of problems we face.
Governing party apologists are quick to mouth the truism that the government cannot be reasonably expected to find jobs for everybody. Government’s 2022 budget projects to create less than 100 jobs. The private sector, concerned as it rightly is with maximising profits, is neither required nor expected to bend backwards to create employment.
What then must the poor and needy people do?
They do as other similarly situated people all over the world. They endeavour to create a space for themselves. They think of creative ways to supply the basic needs of their families. The vast majority of our people do not steal or engage in illegal activity. Many of them ply their trade buying and selling. Like the businessperson who spies a proper location to open a new business, the vendor looks for a spot outside a business place that has a lot of traffic.
Before this renewed push to clear the streets, the argument made against vending was that it created congestion. People cannot walk the sidewalk because it’s clogged with vending tables. The debate about vending has skilfully, but meanly shifted from congestion to filth. Those who want to remove vendors now claim that the city is filthy. Firstly, that claim is not true. But if we take that point as fact, who must be blamed for the filthy reality?
Whose responsibility is it to keep the streets clean? Who must ensure that the toilets at the Kingstown market, Little Tokyo and the Leeward Bus Terminal are kept clean? These places are areas of high traffic. Unless there is constant cleaning, these facilities will deteriorate rapidly. They will be foul-smelling. The faucets will become leaky; creepy crawly life forms will invade and take over these structures.
To be sure, some vendors don’t care if Good Friday falls on a Monday. Their sole aim and purpose is the hustle. They want to maximise turnover. Some set up shop on one side of the walkway and place their stool on the other side, thus narrowing the path of pedestrians. Others simply drop their refuge on the ground, resulting in an untidy condition. These practices must be policed and frowned on.
The solution to the problem cannot be, must not be, the wholesale removal of vendors from the street of Kingstown. Chasing all vendors off the streets will create more problems than it solves.
Vending and marketplaces can best be described as organised chaos. Therefore, any attempt to bring structure and organisation to this area of Vincentian life is fraught with danger. There is going to be hurt feelings and political fallout.
A way to wrap our minds around the problem is to recognise and acknowledge its genesis: poverty and unemployment. We have to live and let’s live. In the best spirit of compromise, some give and take must be thought through and implemented. Government must not try to impose a solution. It must work with the vendors.
Commercial activity for Kingstown has to be redrawn if vending is to be elevated from a kind of informal settlement to organised activity. The authorities should close Middle Street from the police barracks to Heritage Square to vehicular traffic and parking from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Heritage Square should also be close to vehicular traffic. These areas should be turned into exclusive vending zones. Utilising the first in time rule, each business place on Back Street should have no more than three vendors. The same holds for Bay Street.
Buildings earmarked for vending will not work unless there’s a “magnet” attracting people to these sites.
Another problem is the storage spaces for each vending stall at the sites identified for vendors are much too small for the number of goods some vendors own. The vehicle licensing or property tax offices are attractive magnets and should be considered for the top floor of the Kingstown market and the other sites.
A public/private partnership should be aggressively pursued to source and place more garbage disposal bins in and around Kingstown. This partnership should also source vending structures that should be given to each vendor on the condition that they repay the cost over time. These changes will assist in ridding Kingstown of the unsightly board structures used by most vendors.
Unless we take a holistic attitude to the issue of vending and gain an appreciation that its spread is directly related to poverty and unemployment, the problem will not go away, resentment among the poor will grow and our society will pay the price.
Are we ready for the unpleasant fallout of this anti-people policy?
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].