The work-life of a woman street vendor in India and the role of gender in the struggles and vulnerabilities faced by them
4 minutes read
Raise your hand if you hate the following about your workplace- unreasonably demanding superiors, the constant round of blame game with coworkers, being chained to a desk all day, awful coffee, the commute to work, post-its (literally everywhere), and broken air conditioning. Ugh, the last one’s the worst.
The next time you suffer a bout of “What am I even doing here?”, just glance out of your office window and observe the woman toiling away at her roadside stall nearby. Drenched in sweat in the scorching heat, fatigued and desperately attempting to gain customers, women street vendors in the unorganized sector survive amidst deplorable working conditions on a daily basis. (Please note, that this article is in no way meant to trivialize your workplace struggles. It is simply a glimpse into the working conditions of female street vendors in India.)
According to official records (which only provide a fraction of the whole picture), one-third of India’s street hawkers are women. The majority of them live in substandard living conditions, lack basic health services, and work in unhealthy and unsafe environments all day, every day. Women vendors sell more perishable goods, which puts their income at a higher risk (vegetables, fruits, snacks, etc.) vis-a-vis their male counterparts. Their average workday lasts around 14-18 hours every day of the year.
Furthermore, you’ll often see children around the stalls/carts helping their mothers. Female street hawkers have the additional responsibility of looking after the house and the family, because of which many of them have no choice but to bring their young ones along with them.
In addition, more often than not there are no sources of water or toilets nearby, which is a major concern for vendors who sell street food (washing the ingredients, the utensils, and ensuring overall hygiene requires an adequate supply of clean water) or are menstruating. Due to these added limitations, it can get difficult for many to lift and haul heavyweights, and unregulated traffic on roads makes the situation worse.
Yet, can you guess who their worst enemy is? No, not the weather, not the economy, not the buyers but the Law, or rather, the lack of implementation of the existing (inadequate) laws. The Street Vendors Act, 2014 did aim to improve the status of street vending in India. However, the implementation of this act has been grossly unsatisfactory so far. 2.5 percent of the total urban poor survive and succeed by working in this occupation in India even though it is illegal in a lot of cases. They are treated by the municipal corporations like parasites in public places.
Even among the street hawkers, there is rampant competition for space (except the few lucky ones who have a local monopoly). Rapidly rising large-scale stores only make the situation worse. This compels them to lower their prices or move to another location. Hawkers have to negotiate with the wholesalers and the customers every day- this process can be a nightmare for those who lack the necessary skills.
Extortion, eviction, threats, and theft by the mafia are diseases that plague this industry and of course, women are at the bottom of the pyramid. The concept of social security for female street vendors is non-existent, more or less. They are perpetually at the risk of being harassed, trafficked, and being taken undue advantage of. The unfavourable power dynamics at the workplace further weakens their socio-economic standing. The women have to reluctantly agree to move if a male co-vendor asks them to move. Likewise, they have to do everything society expects of them so as to avoid squabbles with their families.
In a survey conducted by ISST Janpahal, a woman vendor responded by saying, “Do you think as a woman I can go around selling vegetables on the cart? Mobility is not possible for a woman.”
Despite the pivotal contribution by organizations like the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) and the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) towards the welfare of street vendors in India, there is still a long way to go.
Well, I guess you better get back to your awful coffee and the ton of paperwork on your desk that needs to be finished before the deadline. We hope you’ll remember what you just read the next time you encounter that vendor down the road (we also hope the air conditioning gets fixed).