One year into the Covid-19 pandemic: the continuous fight & resilience of People’s markets

by GRAIN | 22 Jun 2021
Supermarket Asia bulletin #22 - June 2021


One year into the Covid-19 pandemic: the continuous fight and resilience
of People’s markets

The Covid-19 pandemic has imposed great challenges, not only on people's health but also on people's livelihoods. In Asia, it has dealt a particularly harsh blow to those working in the food sector, as lockdown measures shut down the public spaces used by vendors. The day to day persecution already felt by them and by small food producers, was taken to the next level. In this sense, the pandemic has intensified the asymmetric fight for space and customers between local and global markets, the latter dominated by supermarket monopolies and the rapidly growing e-commerce sector.

In mid May 2021, GRAIN, BioThai, India Hawkers Federation, Sekolah Pasar in Indonesia and other organisations held a virtual discussion among fresh market traders, street vendors and organisers from India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines to discuss the situation and to see how to move forward in the context of the ongoing global pandemic. The discussion provided a space to share experiences and reflections on how Covid and other diseases can be prevented without penalising street vendors and fresh market traders. It built on the joint efforts that our organisations have made over the past years to stimulate collective action and unity between food producers and small-scale food vendors and to facilitate information sharing and analysis among groups in the region, including through this bulletin.

This edition of Supermarket Watch Asia features summaries of the virtual discussion. For those interested in going further, a recording is available on GRAIN’s Youtube channel Also, BioThai has made a summary of the discussion in Thai:

Across the region

Essential workers not receiving essential treatment

Merchants at Thanon Mitr market in Bangkok waiting to be tested for Covid-19. Photo: Reuters/Chalinee Thirasupa
For Naimatul Wardiah and other traders at the Sambilegi market in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent closure of the market have had a devastating impact on their incomes and health, which had already been badly affected by the development of a new airport that had reduced their customers. To try and relieve the increased stress and health issues affecting the traders, their cooperative has been organising various activities such as exercise groups and online karaoke competitions.

It is a similar situation for traders at the Thanon Mitr market in Bangkok. Since the pandemic began, the market, which has 1000 vendors and serves an average of 10,000 customers daily, was closed several times, each time for around one week. This is really difficult for the traders especially since now they also have extra expenses for medicines, masks and sanitizers. Supakorn Kitkanakorn, manager of the Thanon Mitr market, said that when the market reopened it was challenging to bring the customers back, and each time only around 70 percent of the customers returned.

According to Kingkorn Narintarakul from BioThai, the Covid regulations in Thailand are not clear and they discriminate against fresh markets, compared to supermarkets or convenience stores. When there are Covid cases found in a fresh market, the market has to close for one to two weeks, but when cases are found in a shopping mall or in big supermarkets they only have to close the shops for 3 to 48 hours. Such discriminative regulations make fresh market traders very vulnerable, since it deprives the traders of their income for one to two weeks.
Many informal traders and street vendors in Asia are not eligible to receive the emergency pandemic support provided by their governments. They can be disqualified for not being registered as a formal business or for not being officially documented in the city or township where they work, since many of them come from rural areas to work in the city. This was the situation for large numbers of traders in India.

India's lockdown at the start of the pandemic was one of the harshest and strictest implemented in Asia. The lockdown caused an absolute drop to the incomes of informal workers, many of whom were left with no choice but to starve or return to their rural villages. Those who kept working in the cities were harassed by the police who tried to keep them away from the streets.

Dharmendra Kumar of India's Hawkers Joint Action Committee said hawkers and street vendors are the backbone of supply chain, as they support farmers to sell their products and help urban poor consumers to access affordable foods. But they are always treated badly by the government, while corporations are protected. Dharmendra said that during this pandemic, e-commerce companies like Amazon, Jio or Flipkart were free to move around and were even able to sell fresh fruits and vegetables in rural villages.

Kolombo market in Jogjakarta. Photo: Sekolah Pasar

Meanwhile, Nash Tysman from StreetNet International says the numbers of women street vendors has increased significantly during the past year, as women look to find ways to support their families. This has exacerbated the precarious conditions that women street vendors work under, with an increased level of harassments. It is not easy to address the issues that street vendors and fresh market traders face when their unions or associations are not treated equally as other trade unions, because they are seen as “informal’ workers. They are thus shut out of decision-making spaces. Small traders must be involved in creating regulations and designing public spaces because they play critical roles in the local economy. It is also urgent that fresh market traders and street vendors get access to covid vaccines, since they are essential workers and must be treated as such.

Moving forward and adapting to the new pandemic reality

People in Asia clearly still want to shop at fresh markets, despite all the challenges that these markets have faced to stay open during the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by BioThai last year, consumers in Thailand, for example, still rely on fresh markets or weekly markets as their main places to purchase food supplies. This is not only the case for elderly people, but also for people between 30-40 years old.

Government policies that penalise fresh markets and street vendors are rooted in structural problems, connected to larger problems with the food system. To effectively resist such policies, we have to take on these structural issues, and we cannot do so alone. The traders in Sambilegi market in Jogjakarta were only able to maintain their livelihoods during this time of uncertainty by joining forces through traders' cooperatives. When the lockdown closed their market and reduced their customers, the Sambilegi market cooperative joined forces with the Sleman district trade agency, Mercubuana University and Sekolah Pasar to create Pasar ID, an online platform managed by the market traders themselves that enabled them to reconnect with their customers. Everyone that used to work in the Sambilegi market shifted to operating different parts of the platform, from taking orders, to managing the online system to delivering orders to customers. A similar online market platform was created for the Colombo market in Jogjakarta.

Hawkers Joint Action Committee community kitchen. Photo: Hawkers Joint Action Committee

Istianto Ariwibowo of Sekolah Pasar said that the traders do face competition from e-commerce companies, but many customers complain that the fruits and vegetables sold by these companies is not as fresh as those they get from the fresh market. So they are confident that they will still have customers who are attracted to shop through their fresh market website.

For the members of the Hawkers Joint Action Committee in India, they see there are three crucial points that are needed to improve the conditions for street vendors heavily affected by the pandemic measures: social security, safety and monetary/other support. Santi Snighda of the hawkers group said that street vendors need monetary support to restart their work because they experienced a serious loss of income during the lockdown. They also need a guarantee against harassment. Rather than forcing them to stay away from the streets, local or central governments need to provide vendors with sanitary tools and must treat them as frontline workers, giving them urgent access to vaccines. Moreover, there is a need to ensure social security for self-employed workers, like vendors, as many of them are considered seasonal migrants. The vendors that come to the cities need access to affordable housing with clean water.

The pandemic has also shown that discrimination against fresh markets and street vendors not only comes from government regulations, but can also be the product of people's ignorance and prejudice. In Delhi, India, for example, wealthy people living in gated communities have created rules to prohibit street vendors from entering their neighborhood but they allow e-commerce delivery courier to enter freely with their packages. The Hawkers Joint Action Committee said they have filed a lawsuit against such discrimination by residents of gated communities.

This shows there is a strong need to increase public education and awareness to counter the prejudice against fresh markets and street vendors. For instance, studies by BioThai in Thailand found that fresh markets sold better quality produce at a cheaper price. Witoon Lianchamroon from BioThai said their research found higher levels of pesticide residues in fresh fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets, with four times higher prices compared to fresh markets. BioThai also found that most fresh markets source their produce from within a 10-15 km radius of the market, so they are using this to build close cooperation with small farmers in rural areas and consumer support for local markets.

Moving forward means continuing to work in solidarity to create public spaces and conditions that adequately support fresh market traders and street vendors who have proven many times to be resilient to crises. Fresh market traders and street vendors play important roles in linking the rural and urban society and economy and they need to be treated as such. They need to be part of the decision making process in dealing with this pandemic crisis.

See also best practices and guidelines on Covid-19 for street vendors from StreetNet International

From the news

Community pantry: ‘Not charity, but mutual aid’
Nikka G. Valenzuela, Inquirer.Net

Community pantries have sprung up in many places across the Philippines as a way to address the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis. The Maginhawa Community Pantry in Teachers Village, Quezon City, Philippines started this powerful idea – which quickly began to replicate - at a time when many Filipinos don’t have the means to feed themselves and their families.

What is important to point out is that many of those involved in the Maginhawa community effort are not from rich households. They are farmers who donated a sack of sweet potatoes, or tricycle drivers who volunteered to repack donated rice. “It goes beyond the mainstream and elitist notion that in donation drives, only the rich provide for the poor.”

Alibaba leads $400m bet on Vietnam’s fast-growing retail market
John Reed and Mercedes Ruehl, Financial Times

Chinese tech group Alibaba is leading a $400m investment in the retail arm of Vietnamese conglomerate Masan, wagering on strong consumer spending growth in a country that has been a Covid-19 success story. The investment is Alibaba’s first in Vietnam and comes as technology groups increasingly focus on south-east Asia’s nascent online grocery market.

Risks for South Africa's food couriers surge during the pandemic
Kim Harrisberg and Avi Asher-Schapiro, Reuters

Figures obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed a 30% jump in road accidents involving food couriers in May and June last year as South Africa eased its lockdown.

There are no official numbers in South Africa on this expanding workforce but the Motorcycle Safety Institute, a Durban-based research and training organisation, estimates there were at least 6,400 active food delivery drivers in South Africa in 2020, the latest available data. About 70% of drivers are migrants, according to the institute, while Duane Bernard, an Uber Eats courier who heads up a national, informal drivers union, puts the number at 95%.

Having already dominated Africa's ride-hailing sector, Uber is trying to conquer the food delivery market by leveraging its massive fleet of drivers in the continent's most developed economy and tracking popular food choices and destinations.

Amazon indigenous communities and international NGOs sue supermarket giant Casino over deforestation and human rights violations

Indigenous peoples from the Brazilian and Colombian Amazon and non-governmental organisations from France and the US today filed a lawsuit in the Saint-Etienne court against global retail giant Groupe Casino over selling beef products linked to deforestation and land grabbing.

This is the first time a supermarket chain has been taken to court over deforestation and human rights violations under the French due of vigilance law adopted in March 2017 (“loi sur le devoir de vigilance” in French). Indigenous groups claim compensation for damages done to their customary lands and the impact on their livelihoods.

Supermarket watch Asia is a quarterly email bulletin for social movements about developments in food retail and distribution in Asia produced by GRAIN. Click here to subscribe.
Author: GRAIN
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