Market traders at Chiang Mai green market, GRAIN EditorialThroughout our bulletins, we have emphasised the importance of informal economy workers such as market traders and street vendors in the food supply. Following the work of many others who have been organising and working with market traders and street vendors, two important issues come to the forefront: one is the fight against harassments and evictions of small food traders; the other is the fight for social protection such as access to health services and income security.Lacking access to social protection is a long term, structural problem in the informal economy, which often brings harsh consequences. Street vendors and market traders are often excluded from social protection schemes by design: they are considered to be not poor enough to qualify for cash transfers provided by governments, while at the same time their incomes are considered too low to contribute regularly to social schemes like pension funds. The consequences of this exclusion have been compounded in recent years with the global health crisis, as well as the climate crisis, which severely threatens the source of living for small food traders.On a global level, organisations representing informal economy workers are actively engaged in enhancing workers’ capacity to advocate for better social protection, public care and workplace services for both themselves and their families. They also aim to foster connections and facilitate dialogues between policy makers, social protection experts and workers.These are all critical battles. Unfortunately today some pension funds sit on the opposite side of on-going struggles by workers and small food producers, not only over food systems, but also over the climate crisis, housing, health care, elderly care, working conditions, austerity, privatisation policies and numerous others. In a growing number of countries, the retirement savings of workers are managed by financial companies who invest these funds in ways that harm other workers and communities, including informal economy workers and small farmers.This is done through the purchase of shares in multinational corporations, but also increasingly through the acquisition of privatised public infrastructure (like water systems and toll roads) and services (like hospitals and old age homes) and other so-called "real-assets" (like shopping mall developments and large areas of farmland). Today, these financial companies manage upwards of USD52 trillion in retirement savings, making pension funds the number one fuel of the global financial industry. In some countries, however, like China and France, state-run public retirement systems are still functioning and have not been financialised. But they are under intense pressure and face the threat of privatisation and financialisation.This shows that we need actions that address the issue of social protections and old age on two fronts: on the one hand, ensuring that public systems provide everyone, including informal economy workers, with a safe and dignified retirement and, on the other, ensuring that these systems are funded in ways that are not destructive to communities. Some ideas for how this can be done can be found here.GRAIN and StreetNet International Across the regionOrganising street vendors in Sri Lanka Street hawkers of Wadduwa town (40 km from Colombo) selling vegetables. Credit: FIAN Sri Lanka Street vendors are a vibrant cornerstone of Sri Lankan culture and a significant segment of the country’s workforce. However, it is also one of its most precarious and the upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the food, fuel and financial crisis of the last 2 years has driven even more people into street hawking to earn a living. Paradoxically, as their numbers grow, the prevailing economic crisis in Sri Lanka has posed unprecedented hardships for street vendors. They face not only financial uncertainty but also constant harassment from local authorities, all under the guise of public convenience.The cost of essential goods has surged, while utility rates have seen rapid hikes. In the span of just one year, from August 2022 to August 2023, Sri Lankans endured two major electricity and water tariff increases, as a result of IMF and ADB loans with conditionalities. For street vendors, this has translated into a sharp rise in their household expenses, amplifying their daily challengesStreet vendors are also finding themselves in the midst of an economic storm, grappling with a daunting rise in the cost of capital. This surge in costs has been triggered by a dramatic plummet in the value of the Sri Lankan rupee (SLR), a situation exacerbated by the staggering inflation rate, currently exceeding 50%. In this climate, saving for family emergencies has become a nearly insurmountable challenge. A typical Sri Lankan family spends around 70% of its income to meet the ever-increasing costs of food, clothing and essential household items. As if this burden weren’t enough, government subsidies on almost everything from food to household bills have been withdrawn.To shed some light on the pressing concerns facing street vendors in the wake of Covid-19 and the ongoing economic crisis, GRAIN met with Fazly Mohammad of FIAN Sri Lanka in Colombo. FIAN Sri Lanka has taken up the cause of organising street vendors, helping them to assert their rights and secure designated spaces in cities to carry out their livelihoods.GRAIN: What were the conditions and contributions of street vendors during the peak of the economic crisis? FIAN Sri Lanka: When fuel was a scarce commodity and public transportation not very good, street vendors used to go out of the cities to procure food and vegetables for the city consumers. When supermarkets and big shops, dependent on imports, were out of supplies, street vendors were providing an alternative market for city dwellers to get their daily supplies of food and vegetables. During the peak of the economic crisis (2021-2022) urban communities heavily depended on street vendors, giving prominence to a seemingly marginalised, unorganised and informal group of businesswomen and men. This is when FIAN Sri Lanka realised the vital role of street vendors within the food network of Lankan society and began efforts to enhance their recognition and unite them as a collective entity. It’s worth noting that at this time, there was no collective body or unified organisation representing street vendors in the country. Therefore FIAN’s intervention to unite them as a collective association becomes an important initiative. This allows them to negotiate more effectively with government authorities, seeking recognition and the right to engage in street vending without intrusions. GRAIN: What was the impact of the economic crisis on street vendors?FIAN Sri Lanka: Street vendors who were dealing in goods other than food items, like toys and clothes, were hard hit by the economic crisis, especially due to the increased cost of food. Most of them went out of business and some switched over to the sale of food items. Even though the peak of the crisis is over, it is still difficult to sell non-food items since there are hardly any buyers for toys and household goods. People are currently spending money only on essential things. However, the economic crisis has also helped increase the customer base of street vendors. Compared to big shops or supermarkets, it is still quite cheap to buy goods from street vendors. On the flip side, the economic crisis forced many middle-class families to venture into street vending, whether it be selling cooked food from carts or the backs of their cars or setting up stalls in public places or along highways. Over the past two years, street food courts have become a prominent trend in many cities. Some of these ready-to-eat food spots are now quite popular among people from various walks of life. It is also quite noticeable to see more women engaging in street vending, especially in food hawking. This shift can be attributed to the high cost of living, ongoing economic hardships, and the lack of employment opportunities.GRAIN: How has the struggle for secure designated spaces evolved?FIAN Sri Lanka: This year, during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations in April, Sri Lankan authorities granted special permission to street vendors, allowing them to set up stalls along certain major roads without paying any fees. Guidelines were established to ensure that vendors didn’t misuse this ‘temporary’ permit, that they didn’t disrupt traffic, and that they adhered to safety protocols. For quite some time, the vendors had been advocating for a secure and convenient space to conduct their businesses. This temporary measure benefited many people who were struggling financially, as the government invited anyone interested to become street vendors. However, the span for which this temporary permission will remain in effect remains uncertain. Nevertheless, it has been a substantial source of relief for many middle-class families, especially women, seeking to earn extra income through street vending. However, in small towns and suburban areas, street vending remains a challenge due to constant disruptions by the police and local authorities, often responding to complaints from large stores and food establishments whose businesses are impacted by street vendors. Recognising this, FIAN Sri Lanka is actively working on establishing street vendor associations in major cities, a move that would empower them collectively.As part of this, we are developing a standardised bylaw for street vendors across all cities. This bylaw will outline the rights and responsabilities of street vendors while also indicating their limitations. This is being developed in collaboration with local authorities, encouraging them to formally include street vending in their constitutional frameworks and to treat street vendors with respect, minimising unnecessary hurdles such as eviction notices or forced relocations that can disrupt their established customer base. Street vendors frequently voice concerns that their livelihoods are jeopardised by heavy-handed actions from authorities, who often fail to provide viable alternative income sources. These bylaws serve as a set of guidelines for both street vendors and the local authorities, offering clarity on what is permissible and what isn’t. GRAIN: In the past street vendors have been banned from gated communities due to security reason, can you tell us a bit more about this and if things have changed?FIAN Sri Lanka: With the support of FIAN Sri Lanka, street vendors are working with residence associations to gain access to residential complexes. Efforts are underway to provide identity cards and a proper uniform to each street vendor, as well as to enhance the presentation of their products. FIAN is also in the process of developing a model for a home delivery system within these residential societies, using the vendor's existing infrastructure. We are also actively working on establishing food safety guidelines for the sale of food items. This addresses the recurring concerns raised by local authorities regarding hygiene and sanitation. With the help of local health inspectors, we have formulated these guidelines to outline the basic requirements that street vendors dealing in food items must follow. They also specify the safety and quality standards for food stalls.It is still to be seen to what extent FIAN efforts will improve the livelihood opportunities for Sri Lanka’s street vendors. However, their efforts and intervention are expected to address street vendors’ long-standing demand for legal recognition and designated spaces in big cities to conduct their businesses and earn a decent living.___________________________________Stop the merger campaignStop the merger, Frederic J. Brown/AFP On October 13th, 2022, an announcement was made regarding a $24.6 billion mega-merger between Kroger, the largest full-service grocery chain, and Albertsons, the fourth largest grocery chain in the US. Both of these chains employ over 700,000 workers across their numerous banners with over 50 manufacturing facilities and 5,000 retail stores. If this merger goes through, the resulting company will become the largest supermarket by revenue in the United States with a combined annual sale of more than $200 billion.This mega-merger would drive out competition and create food deserts. Less competition in the grocery industry also means higher prices for customers and an increased risk of job losses for employees. Workers from these two companies make up one in three members of the US’s United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).From 1993 to 2019, the number of grocery stores declined by approximately 30 percent. This decline has also left farmers and suppliers with limited options for selling their products, as in many parts of the US, grocery stores are often their primary sales outlets.Grocery store mergers could potentially result in a monopoly situation, wherein the newly formed grocery conglomerate may increase food prices to unreasonably high levels. When prices for essential goods like food rise, lower and middle incomes people face significant difficulties to meet their basic needs. According to a member of the UFCW, a significant portion of the workforce in these grocery chains is already living paycheck to paycheck. It’s clear that these companies prioritise profits over the welfare of their employees and communities. The workers from both Kroger and Albertson groceries are calling for support in their fight against corporate greed and to protect the communities from the harmful impacts of this proposed mega-merger.Find out more about the campaign at: www.nogrocerymerger.comFrom the newsForget milk and eggs: Supermarkets are having a fire sale on data about youJon Keegan, The Markup Many grocers systematically infer information about customers from their purchases and “enrich” the personal information provided with additional data from third-party brokers, potentially including race, ethnicity, age, finances, employment, and online activities. Some of them even track customer precise movements in stores. They then analyse all this data and sell it to consumer brands eager to use it for target advertising and otherwise improve their sales efforts.Boycott Carrefour global week of action - May 21-26Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC)On Tuesday, 9 May, the same day that the Israeli government launched its aggression on Gaza, resulting in the death of 34 Palestinians including children, Carrefour group opened 50 branches to serve customers in apartheid Israel. As Carrefour Group is holding its General Assembly on the 26 May in Paris, people across the world are mobilizing for the #BoycottCarrefour Global Week of Action from May 21- 26. The BDS movement have called on supporters of Palestinian rights worldwide to #BoycottCarrefour, until the multinational retailer ends its franchise agreement with Israel’s Electra Consumer Products and its subsidiary Yenot Bitant; and stops all sales of products from illegal Israeli settlements in the thousands of supermarkets and convenience stores it operates around the world.Saudi wealth fund PIF to acquire 30% stake in Tamimi MarketsKudakwashe Muzoriwa, Gulf BusinessSaudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) will acquire a 30 per cent stake in Tamimi Markets, one of the kingdom’s biggest grocery chains. The Saudi wealth fund owns stakes in several companies in the consumer goods and retail sector including Noon.com, the leading Middle East online shopping platform, Halal Products Development Company, and Americana Restaurants International. 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.