WHY do we overlook the contributions of the underground economy? Why is it tenable for politicians to displace vendors, ostensibly “for the greater good,” without offering them clear alternatives to practice their trade and survive like other citizens?
The “street clearing” operations that have highlighted the “political will” of local executives, such as Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella, to liberate the sidewalks and streets from vendors ignore the gaping absence of livelihood options given to the informal sector that contributes to society and is also entitled to public services.
Journalist and teacher Karlon Rama posted on July 31, 2019 in his Facebook page a photo of the three-day notice served to vendors selling fried bananas along P. Lopez St. outside the University of San Jose-Recoletos campus, who are among the “illegal structure owners and illegal vendors” ordered to move out by the Prevention Restoration Order Beautification Enhancement (Probe) office of the Cebu City Government.
“I didn’t realize that earning an honest living is what passes as nuisance in my beloved city,” commented Rama in his post.
Fellow netizen Ray Nakar, reacting to Rama’s post, pointed out that a “compromise” should have been available to the vendors whose fried bananas, at P2 per stick, are affordable to poor or working students.
In a July 18 article published in “The Philippine Star,” patrons of the shop Books from Underground lamented its closure at the Lagusnilad underpass due to the street-clearing conducted by the Moreno administration. Pointing out how the bookshop contributed to a reading culture by selling affordable and rare finds to readers with limited budgets during the decade of its operations, a customer rued the Manila City Government’s strategy to pit commuters against vendors, who are part of the “taumbayan” entitled to share access to the underpass.
“The mayor (Moreno) declares as if vendors and their customers are not part of the ‘taumbayan,’ as if these informal economies are not part of the pulse and character of Manila,” book designer Karl Castro commented on Facebook, reported the daily.
Although 33 million of the 40.7 million employed in the labor force in the country are involved with the informal sector, social protection continues to elude workers of the so-called underground economy, according to a Jan. 28, 2018 article uploaded by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS).
Hiring 81.1 percent of all workers in the country, the underground economy refers to the “diversified set of economic activities, enterprises, jobs, and workers that are not regulated or protected by the state,” which covers “self-employment in small and unregistered enterprises,” “unpaid work in family enterprises,” and “wage employment in unprotected jobs,” reported the PIDS.
Unlike workers in the formal sector, underground workers do not have the safety nets of economic survival provided by minimum wage and social protection plans for pension, insurance, and pre-need.
Besides poverty, other factors like gender increase the vulnerability of underground workers. Many women work for longer hours and under poor conditions for lower pay.
Yet, as the global nonprofit Grameen Foundation established from decades of working with the urban and rural poor, women, despite being burdened by dependents, little or no formal education, and minimal resources, demonstrate a capability and tenacity to responsibly handle their finances, pay off micro-loans, and increase their earnings and savings.
What underground workers need is not sweeping social judgment and displacement but public and private structural, long-term support to enable them to work for livelihood security, health care, and child care—aspirations shared by the rest of society. Far from being nuisances, vendors and other informal workers have a stake in developing their communities.