The business of vending has for generations been at the bedrock of small societies like ours.
Hawkers who have sold us everything from vegetables, fruits, plants, poultry, fish, drinks, cooked meals, household goods to clothes, books and more remain a vital link in the distribution chain and an integral part of our social fabric.
For decades they have added flavour, variety and diversity to The City, attracting more traffic to Bridgetown or wherever they ply their trade.
But admittedly, making an honest dollar as a vendor has been tough. This livelihood has not enjoyed the benefits of protection and regulation and has been treated with scorn and disregard.
Vendors have endured crackdowns, been sometimes chased and even arrested while their carts and merchandise are confiscated.
Still, this informal sector has survived, noticeably changing throughout the years and even more so in recent times as COVID-19 brought an abrupt end to once-coveted jobs.
Now increasing numbers of vendors have taken to the streets to sell any and all they can to earn a living. Swan Street is brimming with vendors, triggering legitimate concerns from businesses about unfair competition.
More and more too, scores are lining the highways to lure customers for far more than coconuts. One can hardly argue against the need for authorities to bring order to the current state of affairs.
We aver that no one should be punished for simply selling ackees or sno-cones on the sidewalk. Nor should people who are trying to make an honest living or entrepreneurs trying to develop a business be criminalized. It’s long past time for authorities to develop regulations to legitimize and control this ever-growing sector.
Government took a step in that direction as Minister of Entrepreneurship Kerrie Symmonds tabled the National Vending Bill that is intended to remove the scourge of criminality from vending, Symmonds told the House the intention was to dismantle over 300 years “of the last vestiges of the British slave economy”, to bring some dignity to vending and to regulate the activity for the benefit of all engaging in it.
The proposals put forth make provision for the first time in over three centuries for vending without a licence not to be treated as a criminal offence. Now, those caught engaging in the act will be asked to pay an administrative penalty.
Wanton eviction of vendors from the streets are expected to be a thing of the past and according to Symmonds the days where the police remove vendors from the streets of Bridgetown with the canine division must never dawn again.
He told the House: “We say that if there is an issue that has arisen where there is a need for eviction, or removal of a vendor, or a group of vendors, that these people be treated as we treat any other businesspeople in Barbados though, that we give them the courtesy of knowing that this is a development that is coming your way, that you can plan for it. Not that you come to work today and find that everything that you brought to work is destroyed, kicked over, spilt over, knocked bout, without reference to recovery.”
Symmonds further disclosed that vendors will be entitled to compensation in circumstances where there is loss, damage, or destruction of perishable and nonperishable merchandise subjected to the relocation exercise.
Additionally, vendors are to have a say in how and where they operate.
In the coming weeks, there is much more to analyse and we expect full disclosure and discussion on this new Vending Bill to ensure we get this right.
So far, the vending community appears fully on board with the bill.
President of the Barbados Association of Retailers, Vendors and Entrepreneurs (BARVEN) Alistair Alexander said for too many years, vendors have been fighting for rights and to stop being treated as second class citizens. He is confident that the new Bill not only gives unprecedented rights to vendors but gives power to a national vending policy that will transform the sector and lead it to full development.
He said: “We welcome now that we have a bill of rights and we have a vending policy that will speak now to accommodation and we give thanks for that development. We are heritage icons and national treasures and therefore it is long overdue that they are now given their rightful place in the economic landscape of Barbados”.
Nonetheless, as we rightly move to decriminalize and destigmatise vending, and win over the voice – and votes – of sellers and buyers, the protections to vendors should vanish if they are proved to be contributing to another persistent scourge: praedial larceny.
We cannot enshrine a right to vending if it impinges on a farmer’s right to earn his daily bread. Open licencing on vending should not mean open season on crops and livestock in Barbados.
We look forward to an equal and opposite reaction against those who bring shame to vending with ill-gotten gains.