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Time for stocktaking by street vendors

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Fri, Aug 17, 2012

The vexing issue of how street vending in Kingstown should be managed, has once again been placed the front burner.

Minister of Transport and Works Julian Francis has called for a national debate on the issue, saying that he wants to hear from all stakeholders, what approaches they think should be taken to address the problem.{{more}}

The vendors say they are making an honest effort to make a living, but established businesses, financial institutions and administrative offices have been complaining for years that the clutter and business activity at their store fronts detracts from the appearance of their establishments, negatively affects their sales and impedes the movements of their clients.

Tourism stakeholders too have lamented the untidy appearance of Kingstown, and the difficulty visitors have when trying to traverse the city, because the space on the sidewalks, is taken up by vendors selling from mismatched, ramshackle tables. Tourism authorities say it has reached the stage where tourists abort walks into the capital, when they behold what is ahead of them. There are even reports that a major cruise line stopped calling at Port Kingstown because visitors complained that Kingstown is an unfriendly, unattractive place.

Politicians, in government and on the opposition, recognizing the political implications and potentially explosive nature of any move to take away or reduce the livelihood of vendors, have tended to either tiptoe around or exploit the situation, depending on which side of the fence they sit.

The issue must be addressed with urgency however. This is more easily said than done, however, especially in these tough economic times, with so many other pressing national “needs” competing for our limited financial resources.

Successive administrations have focused their solutions on shifting the vendors from place to place and creating alternative and hopefully more attractive accommodation for those involved in the informal retail sector. The James Mitchell administration of the 1990s even went as far as to build the Kingstown Vegetable Market, referred to by Mitchell as “the poor people palace”, in an effort to take the vendors off the street into a protected, controlled environment. The intention though noble, in implementation turned out to be one of the biggest physical planning blunders in the history of this country. That monstrosity of a building is now shunned by the very persons for whom it was built! It sits as an eyesore at the centre of our city, contributing greatly to Kingstown’s unattractiveness and congestion.

Government will never be able to find sufficient accommodation for all our street vendors. It seems that every day, two or three new faces turn up on our sidewalks, vending one commodity or another. Except for the vendors of craft or confectionery, very few of the sellers are themselves involved in production of any kind. The vast majority simply retail goods, either sent from overseas by relatives or bought locally from those who actually produce, such as farmers.

Vending is attractive because of the autonomy it gives practitioners and regular cash flow it appears to offer. However, how many of these vendors really do make a living from the goods they sell on the street? How many of them keep accurate records to determine just how much they are making or losing on a weekly or monthly basis? This may be an opportune time for vendors to do stocktaking to determine whether their efforts are worth the while.

Perhaps, in looking at solutions to the problem, the government may wish to consider offering support to those who wish to re-tool themselves as a way out of street vending. It may be useful for the ministry responsible to get a sense from vendors how many would take up opportunities for skills training, should they be made available.

As our society becomes more sophisticated, our desire/need for professional personalized services increases. Personal chefs, caterers, hair stylists, barbers, manicurists, masseurs, housekeepers, bartenders, waiters, landscapers, caregivers, home health aides, babysitters, drapers, mechanics, electricians, plumbers, house maintenance technicians, personal trainers, baby sitters, early childhood educators and event planners are in demand and will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future. The maturity of most of the vendors, and their appreciation of how business works, will give them an advantage in terms of how they approach their new ventures, should they decide to make the move.

It is worth a try! Various agencies such as the Centre for Enterprise Development, the SVG Community College, Vinsave Child Development Centre could be engaged to see if short-term training programmes could be developed for those who wish to get off the streets, reducing the number of persons government will have to deal with in its relocation efforts.

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