The end of pavement vending?

Business Page
Stabroek News
October 8, 2000

BUSINESS PAGE is dedicated to providing objective information an opinion on issued of interests to the business community and the public at large. The articles in Business page are prepared and contributed by CHRISTOPHER RAM. Christopher Ram is the Managing Partner of Ram & McRae, Chartered Accountants, Professional Services Firm.

The action by the City Council followed the ruling of Justice Carl Singh on the application by vendor Agnes Daniels seeking an order to set aside a decision by the City Council to relocate the vendors of Regent Street (the Street) to other parts of the city and to allow them to continue to occupy the pavements and parapets of Regent Street to vend their goods. The move by the City Council was swift and the effect has been immediate. As one letter writer in the Stabroek News exulted: the old shacks were removed and our citizens were enjoying the walk and window shopping which truly delighted him and brought back old memories of people enjoying the most beautiful shopping centres in the garden city.

Regent Street storeowners are ecstatic and welcome the opportunity to carry on their businesses without any hindrance. The police I understand are finding it much easier to control traffic in Regent Street while the City Council's workers' task of maintaining Regent Street has been made easier and there is no doubt that the street is now far more conducive for shopping.

Although the ruling came some four years after the action was brought, Justice Carl Singh not only applied the law but offered some useful insights into the issue. Supporting the efforts of the City Council he said in his conclusion he recognized the setback which the proceedings would have caused the municipality in its effort to regulate street vending. He anticipated that the municipality would move swiftly to restore order and create a state of cleanliness along the pavements and reserves of Regent Street.

The action would seem to have the complete backing of the law, the business community, consumers and the majority of the general public. Georgetown has been in decay for so many years that most Guyanese had thought there was no hope for Georgetown and emotionally rather than rationally had been calling for a relocation of the city. Pavement vending it appears created more problems than it solved and the cost to the economy and the psyche must have been enormous. The response of the majority is therefore understandable but is it adequate? Does it recognise all the circumstances and does it offer a real and permanent solution?

There are far more difficult issues and the action by the City Council has to be seen partly and perhaps merely as the discharge of its statutory duty to ensure that the citizens of Georgetown enjoy the unimpeded use of the city's pavements and reserves. The by-laws under which the municipality operates prohibit any trespass and encumbering of the pavements and reserves of the city. As Justice Singh pointed out in his ruling the municipality would be in breach of its statutory power if it allows the vendors to encroach on the pavements and reserves in the street. Many business operators welcome this re-statement of the law and would no doubt be challenging the City Council for any failure to do its duty.

Political tool
Pavement vending has not only been tolerated for the past twenty-five years or so but has been encouraged by politicians from all sides who have sought to capitalise on the activism of the vendors for their own purposes. Even those who admit that something has to be done are arguing that the action by the council was insensitive and too swift. It ignores the fact that like the rest of the economy the vendors have had a poor year and have all been looking forward to the Christmas period during which they make most of their money and they have probably begun to stock up for the season.

We cannot forget that pavement vending has its roots in the days of banned goods. Established businesses considered it too much of a risk and indeed a give away to offer banned items in their stores. The slack was taken up by individuals who demonstrated great courage and initiative in procuring these items, slipping them through Customs and then offering them to an equally anxious public.

With such courage and ingenuity one would have hoped that more of these vendors would have graduated to legitimate and enlarged operations. Indeed very few of them have and their continuing culture and business practices doom them to at best subsistence living. They all sell the same type of product with no quality assurance to their customer and given the limited space they have available their display is simply unattractive.

On the political front, elections are due within months and the issue is therefore inopportune particularly for those who wish to take this opportunity as the basis of a longer term solution to the problem. Even if the vendors were allowed a 'few' months to tide them over the Christmas season and for the council and the vendors to come up with alternative arrangements. Of course temporary agreements have been entered into in the past but there are accusations about "bad faith" on the part of the vendors. Indeed Mr Robert Williams has pointed out that the vendors went to court while they were involved in discussions with the council. It is a serious dilemma for the politicians. The government has a duty to mediate in conflicts in society but it must also be seen not to be interfering or frustrating the decision of the court.

Political fallout
Both the PNC and the GGG have appeared to command support among the vendor community but they too cannot be seen to be acting against the law. Campaign funds are critical particularly when you are in opposition and they cannot be seen to be acting against the interest of the business community. Already the PNC is still reeling from its identification with the post-elections action and the public workers strike in 1998. Both these parties and perhaps moreso the PNC are in a dilemma.

Murky definition
One of the other complicating factors is a definition of a pavement vendor and again the City Council says it has information to prove that some of these persons have stalls in the markets, have been allocated designated spots or are employees of some businesspersons including some Regent Street shop owners. In other words these are not only single mothers who are trying to eke out a living under some very difficult conditions.

The vendors appeal to moral arguments and their right to earn a living but this surely has to be weighed against the rights of others and the need for some order to be maintained in the administration of the city. From time immemorial competition for space has been a major issue facing society but that is precisely why laws are made. It will be no more than anarchy if society were to allow everyone who wants to set up shop wherever they wish, the unfettered freedom to do so. But then we get the other argument: no one touches the big ones when they violate the city's by-laws and building codes or engage in all forms of white collar crimes for which hundreds go unpunished daily. Are the vendors being targeted because they are at the low down on the ladder and their infraction is more visible? Or is it that as a society we have double standards when it comes to values on what is acceptable law-breaking and what is not. Implications Vendors' argument about their right to earn a living has to be seen against the costs both direct and indirect of their operations. One example of which I am aware as a result of a professional engagement is J.P. Santos which was a major employer and taxpayer. Vendors literally took over the access to the store resulting simultaneously in the loss of jobs for so many fellow Guyanese and the contraction of the nation's revenue base and all the indirect results therefrom. What of the rights of those people and their families?

One idea1 that has been floated is to allow the vendors back while a longer term solution is sought. That has too many risks and some other form of assistance should be considered. Financial assistance, training, alternative employment and relocation have to be considered by the Government, the City Council and society. We are all responsible for the current situation and all stand to benefit from a resolution. We must therefore be prepared to meet the cost.

While Regent Street has been cleared it is only fair to all concerned that Water Street be addressed as well. Businesses there are suffering as well - just ask Fogarty's and Universal Bookstore. More importantly it is in Water Street that the potential for a longer term solution lies. The bond which is now erroneously referred to as the Guyana Stores Bond was identified as a site for housing vendors. The Government can acquire this paying market rate. The City Council already has drawings and within six weeks this location should be ready for occupation. The area around Stabroek Market should be cleared and the Fire Service relocated, as should the government ministry in that area which is certainly as out of place as one can get. This would allow Stabroek Market to be expanded to accommodate most if not all of the vendors. A solution to the vending problem must simultaneously address the mini-bus and transportation problem of the country.

Our ministers must surely wake up from their slumber and do something about all these problems. They cannot expect the court and the City Council to solve national problems. Any solution must be appropriately negotiated and take the interest of all stakeholders into account bearing in mind that everyone will have to give up something. The overall public interest must however be paramount and any decisions arrived at must be firmly enforced. Any visitor to Port of Spain, Trinidad can see the change in that city over the last decade. This was achieved through vision, political will and recognition by officialdom that while the rights of citizens are important, the rule of law must also be upheld. Can those in charge of our city, not follow this example?

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