By Kalinga Seneviratne
When people talk about sustainable development there is rarely any mention of the many street vendors who make a living on streets in Thailand, as across the rest of Asia.
Even attempts to stop them doing business – like the unsuccessful year-long attempt by the governor of Bangkok to clean the city’s streets of street vendors – passes unnoticed in the media.
“Street vending tends to attract tourists to Bangkok, it is part of Thai lifestyle and tourists want to experience that,” says Pattama Vilailert, a tourism consultant. “Some tourists come to Thailand (especially) to taste reasonable street food.”
Vilailert notes that after visiting Bangkok, many Chinese tourists, for example, post photos of a street food stall on social media that go viral and others will then come to eat, take a photo and post it on the same social media. “It is part of their travel accomplishment,” she argues. Last year, a staggering 10 million Chinese visited Thailand.
In April last year, a month after Bangkok was named as the finest street food destination in the world by CNN, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) announced that it was going to rid Bangkok’s pavements of street vendors in the interest of cleanliness, safety and order.
Wanlop Suwandee, chief adviser to Bangkok’s governor, said then that “street vendors have seized the pavement space for too long and we already provide them with space to sell food and other products legally in the market, so there will be no let-up in this operation.”
In June last year, representatives of street vendors from Bangkok’s 50 districts submitted a letter to Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha asking that they be allowed to continue trading on the streets because it was their livelihood. It was reported by the Nation news group that the vendors described the measures by the government and the BMA to confine Bangkok’s street vendors to designated areas and markets as too harsh.
One of the areas that was exempt from the ban was the backpacker tourist haven of Khaosan, a historic area bordering the Chayo Prayo river. For decades this area has been a magnet for budget travellers with its cheap hostels and guesthouses … and street vendors.
Today, not only Westerners but also thousands of Asian travellers are attracted to its street vending culture, creating a carnival-like atmosphere after sunset, with streets lined by the folding tables and chairs of food stalls, virtually closing thoroughfare to traffic. Besides the many neighbourhood hotels and pubs that also set out their own folding tables and chairs on the street, numerous ‘tent’ stalls are put up on the pavements selling objects like clothes, shoes, bags and souvenirs, among others.
Over the years, studies have shown that street vending is a major livelihood for many Thais with a low level of education and it has thus become a major source of income for urban poor families, some of which have migrated from the villages.
Here in Khaosan, vendors are said to pay monthly fees to someone, be it rent to the land or shop owner where they sell their food, bribes to police or fees to informal neighbourhood organisations.
However, Nut, a food vendor in her 40s who has been selling noodles from her mobile cart here for many years, told IDN that mobile stalls do not pay the police. “If I have a stationary shop I have to pay” she told IDN, adding, “I have a family in Bangkok to feed from what I earn from this.” But, a juice seller who gave his name as Tot complained, “I have to pay money every day to do business. No money, police arrest me. They come every day to take money.”
One of the street food vendors, whom one of his Burmese employees told IDN is a Cambodian, said that he runs his stall 24 hours a day. “I supervise at night. My sister comes in the morning,” he explained, refusing to give his name. He was not willing to say if he has to pay the police but he did indicate that he has to pay “someone” to operate here.
He employs about eight young workers – men and women – from Myanmar. He has his kitchen and the tables and chairs for his customers under five tents. All of these are taken out and stored in the back of a pick-up truck on Monday morning and brought back out on Tuesday evening, because street stalls are not allowed to operate on Mondays.
Casually talking to street vendors, IDN noted that most of the vendors who sell non-food items like clothes, shoes and bags are from Myanmar, some of Nepali origin. Most seem to be in their 20s and 30s. They were unwilling to give their names. A Burmese woman in her 30s selling bags said that her “boss” pays her 350 Bhat (about 10 dollars) a day plus a two percent commission on every 1,000 Bhat of sales.
A 28-year-old man who gave his name as Kumar said that he is of Nepali origin but a Myanmar citizen from Mandalay. “We come getting the passport chopped (at the border) and work here. We’re legally here,” he insisted. “No jobs in Mandalay. We cannot starve there. I get about 15,000 Bhat (about 425 dollars) a month from boss. This is not my shop. Boss pay the police for me to have shop here … not me.”
In January it was reported that the Thai authorities had arrested over 1,600 illegal migrants, mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos who were working as street vendors or in restaurants. Under a new law, they could be sentenced to five years in prison or fined up to 100,000 Bhat (about 2,800 dollars), and employers of illegal migrants also face hefty fines.
A Thai social worker, who has worked with Myanmar refugees for over two decades, but did not want to be named, told IDN that there are about four million Myanmar people working in Thailand and only about 200,000 have legal status to work here. “They pay agents in border areas to get work permits … Thai brokers makes thousands of Bhat from each of them,” she explained.
“As long as they can speak Thai they are tolerated and Thais don’t care” she added. “These migrants come from a culture where almost everything is done illegally so they don’t see anything wrong in getting things done by paying someone.”
She did not see a problem for the Thai street vendors (who usually operate food stalls) in terms of sustainable incomes for themselves from street trading.
In fact, she noted, these migrant workers may contribute towards making street vending more profitable and sustainable for the locals because “undocumented migrants can’t go for higher paid jobs … so they would work for bosses to run their street shops or work as kitchen hands.”