Asia's street food hawkers struggle during coronavirus lockdowns

Coronavirus clampdowns are 'catastrophic' for street vendors who lead a hand-to-mouth existence, say poverty reduction groups.

panipuri india
A street vendor of popular snack Panipuri in Uttar PRadesh, India. Image: AdamCohn, CC BY-SA 3.0

Authorities in Asia must assist street food sellers struggling to make a living as the coronavirus outbreak shutters offices and tourism, and forces people to stay indoors, labour and urban experts said on Wednesday.

More than 420,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus across the world and about 19,000 have died, according to a Reuters tally.

In an effort to slow infection rates, many countries and cities have imposed strict lockdown measures.

While many food businesses have remained open by offering online deliveries, few food hawkers - who favour locations in public areas popular with pedestrians - use such services because of the cost and their informal status.

“Clampdowns are catastrophic for them (street vendors) since they operate on a daily basis and lead a hand-to-mouth existence,” said Ajay Suri, a Bangkok-based manager at Cities Alliance, a global partnership for urban poverty reduction.

“Governments should design a bailout package for informal sector workers, including street vendors, whereby direct cash transfers are made to their bank accounts to help them survive,” Suri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Asia is famous for its street food, with hawkers serving fresh foods and local delicacies in cities including Hong Kong, Bangkok, Jakarta, Hanoi and Mumbai. Some vendors have even won Michelin stars.

They use vans, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles, carts, tables and chairs, or even a simple piece of cardboard laid out on pavements to transport and sell their foods. 

Clampdowns are catastrophic for them (street vendors) since they operate on a daily basis and lead a hand-to-mouth existence.

Ajay Suri, manager, Cities Alliance

As well as attracting tourists, selling street food also provides livelihoods for young people, women and migrants, while helping keep the cost of living low in cities.

But as part of the informal economy that rarely pays taxes or receives government protections, reliable data on the numbers of street vendors is hard to come by.

In many of Asia’s mega-cities, they are estimated to number more than 300,000, said John Taylor, an adviser for the Food and Agriculture Organization in Dhaka.

Governments should control food prices to ensure basic commodities do not become unaffordable, he said, adding that ensuring social safety nets reach the most vulnerable was vital.

‘People are afraid’ 

As Asian cities expand and modernise, authorities often view street food vendors as a hindrance to progress and target them for forced evictions, although some cities have made efforts to accommodate them and help raise sanitation standards.

In Bangkok, where street vendors have rallied against evictions, earnings are down by up to 80 per cent since a partial lockdown began last week, according to Poonsap Tulaphan, a director of HomeNet Thailand, a network of informal workers.

“Street food vendors are still able to sell food for takeaway, but there are fewer customers,” she said. “Prices of commodities are also much higher but they can’t raise prices.”

While some Asian governments have unveiled financial schemes to help businesses and workers cope with the coronavirus outbreak, many have failed to provide assistance to gig, casual and informal workers.

Measures in Thailand include cash handouts and soft loans, but many street vendors find the application process challenging, and continue to ply their trade, said Poonsap.

“Business is not so good because offices and shops are closed, and people are afraid to go out,” said Wat Laithi, a street vendor who sells noodles and fried snacks in Bangkok.

“But I have no other option. I have to make a living for my family.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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