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The risks and realities of vending

Betty Ann Blaine
Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Dear Reader,

For an activity that is the mainstay of the Jamaican masses, and after 50 years of independence, it is preposterous that we have not been able to find workable solutions to the perennial problem of vending.

It was déjà vu all over again last week as the television screens carried images of vendors scurrying to remove their things as front-end loaders and convoys of law enforcement and KSAC (Kingston and St Andrew Corporation) personnel moved in to demolish and confiscate goods belonging to illegal vendors in downtown Kingston.

For anybody with a social conscience, those images are difficult to swallow. One of the scenes captured on film showed a woman who kept on begging the authorities to save her stall because that was where the baby was housed. I suspect that there are many more of those make-shift structures that serve the dual purpose of retail store and living quarters for small children.

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In fact, one of the grave concerns that I have is the fact that children are involved and exposed in this manner. I'm not sure if the authorities recognise that when you plan for a raid against illegal vendors, you also plan a raid against their children who are an inherent part of the informal economic landscape. While some of the children are babies and toddlers, others a little older are a part of the division of labour, albeit illegal.

One of the risks of illegal vending is the confiscation of goods, and not just the destruction of makeshift structures from which goods are sold. It is heart-wrenching to see fresh produce being seized along with other types of items. Needless to say, some vendors are never able to recover and re-invest in the business.

Even more distressing, the vendors tell me, is the fact that the confiscated goods are never reclaimed. From "fear a courthouse" to the resignation of the finality of the loss and what they describe as "no justice", few if any of the vendors make efforts to retrieve their wares.

Starting over means having to find the financial wherewithal to restock and in some cases to re-locate, of course with the risk of having the same thing repeated all over again.

It seems unconscionable to me for the authorities to be moving against vending right after a significant hurricane and the physical and financial dislocations caused by that type of unexpected natural disaster. With the economic fortunes of rural folk stymied as a result of Hurricane Sandy, I imagine that more and more vendors will flock to Kingston to seek a livelihood. Less than a month after a significant hurricane cannot possibly be the best time to prevent any kind of economic activity, especially involving the poorest demographic groups.

Efforts to inhibit the poor from forms of economic activity when Jamaica's unemployment rate is as high as it is are also puzzling to me. Vending is the financial mainstay of a significant percentage of the Jamaican population and across every nook and cranny of the country. It is vending that puts food on the table and sends children to school. Were it not for the ability of the Jamaican people to buy and sell goods, I suspect that this country would have gone up in smoke a long time ago.

Vending, from what I see, is also very hard work. Almost every day I pass an elderly woman with her back bent, struggling up the incline with her pots and pans in a handcart to set up her boiled corn stand on the corner of the street. On some days her elder daughter joins her. I can't imagine what she would do without the income, however small, from her little vending business. Anybody who dares to say that the poor are lazy and don't want to work should take a second look at what is entailed in selling goods on the streets, especially for those who work in the "sun hot", 24/7.

Let me make it clear that I am in no way condoning any type of illegal activity. However, it seems to me that the issue of illegal vending must now be properly and adequately addressed.

Vending has been part and parcel of Jamaican life for generations. My own mother, a peasant farmer from deep rural Westmoreland, depended solely on the vending of cash crops to support her family. The stories she would tell us described the arduousness of transporting produce to Kingston under treacherous conditions. But she persevered and prevailed, and her efforts laid the foundation for every one of her children to get a good education.

I continue to be baffled that for an activity that is so crucial to the welfare of the masses we have not been able to find workable solutions.

In other countries I have visited, all types of creative ways are employed to facilitate vending, particularly for tourists. In some cities certain days of the week are designated for certain types of goods, and whole streets are sectioned off on those days to bring buyers and sellers together.

We don't seem to have that type of creative acumen. Instead, we spend valuable time and money chasing vendors, only for them to resettle somewhere else, then we keep repeating the same brainless and useless strategy over and over again. Let's get with it, and find some alternatives for our people to be gainfully and legally employed and engaged, especially during the critical Christmas season.

With love,


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