Organising informal traders and local markets

by GRAIN | 8 Oct 2021
Supermarket Asia bulletin #23 - September 2021


Organising informal traders and local markets

Those who work tirelessly with informal traders, street vendors and local markets always emphasise the importance of and need of organising. From the fight against farm bills in India that give big retailers more access and control over food distribution to the fight against bias and unjust Covid prevention measures that regard fresh markets as culprits that must be closed down, it all takes constant effort organising with and among small traders. All the various fights also reveal the vital contribution market traders and street vendors make to the larger struggle for a better food system.

Market traders and street vendors are essential workers and are an important part of the economy but are rarely seen as such. In its report on the 'Informal Food Sector’, the UN's FAO emphasises the important presence of informal workers in the food supply. They not only support their families but also connect small food producers, farmers, fishers, and home industries to consumers, especially low middle-income consumers.

According to the FAO, while modern food supply networks are developing in urban areas, traditional and usually informal food supply and distribution activities continue to play an important role, as they are best at satisfying the specific food needs of poor urban households. They also provide employment and income to low-income households, particularly women. In Bangkok, for example, two-thirds of food vendors are women. And it is therefore essential that these activities be duly recognised and supported by the local authorities. But recognition and support from local authorities do not come easy. Small traders have to fight for it, and this requires organising.

In this bulletin, we talked with a community organiser who has worked for more than a decade with fresh market traders and street vendors. He shares their experiences and gives their perspectives on what is needed to build a better and just food distribution system. Their experiences are particularly important for Asia, where fresh markets and street vendors still dominate food distribution, despite the push by big retail stores and e-commerce to marginalise them. In the face of this onslaught, traders and street vendors are building up their collective fight with others in the community.

Head banner: fruit seller in Phnom Phen, creative common

Across the region
Organising fresh market traders in Jogjakarta and other cities in Indonesia. Interview with Istianto Ariwibowo of Sekolah Pasar

Istianto in discussion with stall owners in Trenggalek bird market during one of organising session. Photo: Sekolah Pasar
Could you tell us about Sekolah Pasar and some of the key factors that led to its formation? What is your role in the organisation?

The idea for Sekolah Pasar started in 2009 following research conducted by Centre for People’s Economy Study (Pustek) Gadjah Mada University in 25 markets around Jogjakarta. The research was looking at three aspects: human resources, institution and business scale. It found that the majority of market traders had a low education level, relied solely upon their market stall for income, and had no trade union or collective to bring them together to deal with the issues that they often face in the market.

Pustek is a university-based study centre; therefore we come with this idea of ‘Sekolah Pasar’ (meaning market school) to work together with the market traders to improve human resources capacity and to help form a collective where the market traders can gather to discuss and try to solve their problems.

I’ve been involved since the beginning of this project with several other people. My role in the education division is to amplify the idea that organising is essential among market traders and students who are part of this collective. Sekolah Pasar was officially established on 11 February 2012, when a first branch of a traders' collective in Pasar Krangan was created . It started with 30 market traders that met once every two weeks to organise and hold discussions or consultations individually, which we call ‘klinik pasar’ (market clinic). Right now we are present in 9 markets in 3 provinces-- Jogjakarta, Central and East Java. Some were established through collaboration with local governments at district or city level, others were set up through the direct request of traders.

Why is it essential to organise informal traders/street vendors?

It is essential for the market traders themselves. They organise to protect themselves from price fluctuation and regulations that harm their work. When prices fluctuate, as it often happens, it is not only the consumers who are impacted, but also the market traders. Because oftentimes they have to procure their goods from big warehouse owners who collect produce from farmers and other small producers. Price fluctuations and the absence of minimum support prices mean everyone from small producers (farmers), fresh market traders to consumers are all affected. We see there are many farmer, consumer and labour groups, but there are still limited traders' groups or organisations.

What are some of the main challenges you find in organising informal traders/street vendors and how do you deal with these challenges?

It is not as easy as one can imagine. Coordinating all three parties (farmers, traders and labour/consumers) to create a just distribution system that can benefit everyone is a huge challenge. And that is just one of many. Traders are seen as the least affected parties, because it is assumed that they are more flexible and can easily quit or change to other occupations without much of a risk compared to farmers and labours who are bound to their farm or factory. We try to convince and educate market traders that their fresh market and stalls are production tools that also need to be defended as their livelihood.

In the organisational context, market traders do not work all day, even only during market day in some places, and they live relatively far from the market. So it is a challenge to try to find a time and place that works to organise meetings or discussions with them.

In your opinion how important is the role of informal traders/street vendors in the food web in your country/region? Are they being treated in a way that recognises this contribution?

In Indonesia, fresh market traders are important because they still fill the distribution miles to connect producers and consumers. In the past, when village markets were still thriving, farmers usually brought their own products to the market. But now, as towns are expanding and distance is getting far to reach the consumers, it becomes more challenging to do so. Farmers who spend their time in the field, harvesting and processing the produce, do not have the time and capacity to bring their goods to the town market. That is why the role of the market trader in food distribution is so important.

But protection for their role is also diminishing, especially with authorities now easily giving business permits to modern markets (supermarkets or convenience stores). At the government level, the fresh market body has been dissolved into an industry and trade division. So maintenance and capacity building for fresh markets has been reduced a lot.

What are the most crucial things needed to protect informal traders/street vendors in your opinion?

It is essential to acknowledge and treat market traders and the fresh market as significant economic entities in society. When they are organised, market traders have the capacity to manage beyond their small space. They can take better care of the market where their stall resides when they feel a sense of ownership of the market. They can work together to build more just and shorter distribution routes with the producers, which is also good for the consumers. The authorities should play a more stronger role to regulate and protect market traders instead of chasing them away or help tidy up distribution management from big warehouses or retailers that put pressure on both small producers and market traders.

Further information visit:

Not in this together: How supermarkets became the pandemic’s winners while women workers are losing out

Migrant worker in Thai shrimp industry. Photo: Patipat Janthong/OXFAM
Inequality is worsening and exploitation of women is endemic across the global economy. While inequality of power and value was already deeply unfair before the pandemic, it has now reached shocking proportions. COVID-19 has cost global workers $3.7 trillion in lost income, and women and young workers have been hardest hit, as they are often found in the most insecure and lowest-paid jobs. Few places reveal this trend more clearly than supermarket supply chains.

In stark contrast to the escalating human misery brought by the pandemic, the supermarket sector has largely been the standout winner of the crisis. Senior executives, the largest institutional investors, and mostly wealthy shareholders of global supermarkets continue to be rewarded with ‘business-as-usual’ high compensation and dividends.

In fact, during the pandemic, publicly listed supermarkets distributed 98% of net profits to their shareholders via dividends and share buybacks. Meanwhile, workers and producers, especially women, across the globe – the people we call ‘essential’ or ‘frontline’ workers – have seen their incomes stagnate or even fall, while their rights continue to be violated.

Costs related to COVID-19 reported by the supermarkets pale in comparison to their additional revenues gained and increased shareholder payouts during the pandemic. Few have taken the opportunity to invest in longer-term supply chain improvements to benefit the food producers and workers experiencing extreme hardship due to the pandemic.

Exploitation, gender discrimination and inequality in global food supply chains have been widely documented but remain largely unaddressed by supermarkets.

Violation of workers’ rights is evident across multiple food supply chains in different regions
Between November 2020 and February 2021 Oxfam conducted new research on working conditions in the production of coffee in Brazil, basmati rice in Pakistan and wine in South Africa, and updated earlier research on Assam tea production in India and seafood production in Thailand. Most workers and farmers interviewed by Oxfam and partners do not earn a living income or wage, and some do not even earn a monthly minimum wage. In Brazilian coffee production, slavery-like working conditions reported on Brazil’s official Dirty List to combat slavery could be linked to many supermarkets’ supply chains.

Women’s rights violations in supermarket supply chains are pervasive and systemic
COVID-19 has exacerbated existing structural gender inequalities and made the situation even more dire for women workers and farmers. Oxfam’s research reveals evidence that women workers – who were already earning less – have lost more income than men during the pandemic. Women workers have effectively acted as shock absorbers during the pandemic and will end up worse off, while at the other end of the supply chain, companies and shareholders have continued to prosper.

Until now, supermarkets have failed to take adequate action to address the abuse of labour rights experienced by women in supply chains. Transparency is greatly lacking: of the retailers featuring in Oxfam’s global Supermarket Scorecard, only Tesco has published a gender policy, detailing the actions it will take to improve the position of women in four high-risk supply chains. None of the supermarkets are tracking and disclosing gender-disaggregated data.

Read OXFAM full report here

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
Links in this article:
  • [1]
  • [2]
  • [3]
  • [4]