Our street vendor cancer is beyond cure
Editor: If we want to understand the roots of our current street vendor dilemma, the place to start is the Kingstown Central Market.
Better known by its pejorative but appropriate nickname, “Mussolini’s Tomb,” it was constructed over many years using an obscene amount of concrete by the James F. Mitchell NDP government during the 1990s. Dark, dank, poorly laid out, and physically unappealing both inside and out, it is truly a monstrous national exemplar of the many foolish projects during the Mitchell regime that also included the scandal-ridden Ottley Hall marina and shipyard, the useless Kingstown traffic lights, the derelict Bequia airport, and the crime infested Little Tokyo rum shops.
How could a huge two-story complex like the Central Market (the second floor of which has always been nearly unoccupied) have ever been planned without lots of adjacent parking?
No wonder most ordinary vendors and shoppers avoid it like the plague.
The original spacious, well lit, and airy market building it replaced could easily have been upgraded for a few million dollars with the space occupied by the Tomb converted into an urban park or multi-story vehicle parkade.
Historically speaking, then, Sir James, not Ralph Gonsalves, is the patron saint of our current out of control street vending cancer.
But those who support informal street vending, including Jomo Thomas who has asserted in various media that there is an “… inalienable right of citizens to make a decent living, by utilizing their own mind and sweat” but fails to mention that such a living is necessarily circumscribed by the Constitution and its associated laws. That is why many ways of earning a living – prostitution, drug dealing, selling liquor without a license, hunting or fishing out of season, forced child labour, etc. – are prohibited by law.
Concerning “inalienable rights,” Jomo Thomas says not a word about the illegal nature of this street trade or the fact that the government has both a moral and legal right to remove these informal sector vendors. Neither does he show any interest in the fact that the street vending of foodstuff and beer is not in the public interest when it is used as a front for the sale of illegal drugs like marijuana and cocaine, as is often the case.
Not only does the unsightly and unhygienic nature of this street trade not trouble its supporters, there is no awareness that our regional neighbours have long prohibited such unregulated activity based on its many adverse effects and laws like our own but because this street trade represents unfair competition with legal tax-generating businesses selling identical produce.
The people most physically inconvenienced and economically damaged by these vendors are not even our wealthy business owners. Rather it is mainly ordinary pedestrians forced off narrow sidewalks into dangerous roads and drains as well as potential workers in formal, tax-paying businesses, many of them young women eager for their first job, who are denied employment because of unfair competition from unlicensed and untaxed in-your-face vendors.
Not only raw farm produce and bottled drinks are sold by unregulated vendors. But Jomo Thomas’ assertion that some vendors, “… depend on friends and family abroad to send basic foodstuff, personal hygiene products as well as clothing, which they spin into a small profit” obscures the fact that these products are all imported during the Christmas duty-free concession period, a government programme originally established to help poor people with their basic needs during the joyous holiday season.
But this concession has been corrupted by the import of more than the duty-free maximum by the same individuals using friends and relatives as a façade to obscure this illegal activity. Untaxed, the contents of these barrels are openly sold year-round by these retailers, many of them middle-class people selling the produce from the back of their expensive vehicles, to the detriment of legally established businesses and their vulnerable force of low-paid employees.
In short, “… [P]oor people trying to make a decent and honest living,” as Jomo Thomas opines, is a parody of much of what is taking place on the streets of Kingstown and elsewhere.
As for his assertion that, “… to frequently assault the poor, send police to confiscate their products, beating and arresting some in the process are uncalled for and callous” wilfully misrepresents the fact that these “assaults” are very rare which is why this chaotic street trade has been allowed to fester and spread like a cancer over the past 30 plus years.
Alas, despite periodic and valiant government efforts to reduce its spread, like actual terminal cancer this social cancer is too far gone to cure.