A cold winter afternoon in one of the main shopping streets in Brussels, Rue Neuve: five middle-aged men and women of Latin American origin run from three policemen who follow them slowly but sternly. The Latinos running past me are carrying large blankets full of goods. They can´t run fast with the bulky weight over their shoulders. So they hide from the police behind a car, crouching down, waiting, hoping.
The Latin American immigrants are street vendors. They are trying to make a living by selling handcraft from Ecuador and Peru – working hard, everyday but without any formal employment contract. Their work is illegal according to European standards but generally ignored by authorities and welcomed by customers. They now form part of a lively urban economy, though marginalized from society and vulnerable to harrassment by the police.
In the Changing Employment Network we work on the three themes of migrant workers, social dialogue and work-life quality. Street vendors are always migrant workers with no rights to either working life quality or social dialogue. They are real faces behind the structural changes of work and employment in Europe. We can observe how street vendors struggle for decent work and a live in dignity in any larger city of the world at any time.
Informal workers are the most vulnerable part of the precariat. But could they maybe also become the agent of change, the revolutionary element in Europe’s inequality-striken societies? After all, it was a street vendor who started the Arab spring movement in 2010: Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunesia after repeated harrassment by the police and confiscation of his goods. With rising oppression come rising resistance. And they are getting ever more organized, for example through the International Street Vendors alliance that works from Durban, South Africa (http://www.streetnet.org.za/).
The men and women come up from behind the car and start slowly, carefully, walking up the street behind me. When I spot more policemen at the end of the street, I turn and tell the vendors not to go that way. The incident leaves me wondering about the way our societys deal with the changing nature of working life in Europe. There is not much a European citizen can do to protect the rights of informal workers. Nothing but small acts of solidarity.
Mona Aranea, ESR2, University of Oviedo, on secondment with ULB Brussels