A spicy salad street vendor cooks as ordered with her face mask on. (File photo)

Pandemic and regulations grilling street food vendors, says panel

Experts and observers find Thailand’s informal sector has been devastated by Covid-19 aftershocks and restrictive regulations. They recommend that the government strengthen the sector and the entire economy by providing interest-free loans, easing restrictions, promoting job creation and skills training programs. 

A file photo of Yaowarat, one of the destinations in Bangkok that offers a variety of street foods. (Source: Sayompoo Setabhrahmana /Wikipedia)

Street vendors are a common sight in Thailand. They contribute to the daily lives and economic livelihoods of countless individuals. Their importance is often disregarded for the sake of cleanliness and order when push comes to shove, however. Workers in the informal sector, street vendors and others who work without tax authority oversight and state protection, comprise a significant portion of the Thai economy. 

Thailand’ total workforce is estimated to be 38.72 million people.  According to a National Statistical Office’ Q1 report (January 2022 - March 2022), some 5.62 million are in Bangkok. 56% of Thailand’s workers are in the informal sector. In Bangkok, it is 28%, according to a joint report by Homenet Thailand, the Federation of Informal Workers of Thailand (FIT), and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), published on 14 June, 2022. Informal occupations include, but are not limited to, domestic workers, motorcycle taxi drivers, massage therapists, and waste pickers. 

Surviving, but gravely crippled

On 27 July, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) held a panel titled ‘Thailand’s Informal Workers in the Age of Covid-19’ to present and discuss issues related to the informal sector in Bangkok, noting the damage done by three successive waves of coronavirus and the negative consequences for street vendors in particular. 

The 27 July panel at FCCT.

Summarising the impact of Covid-19 on Thailand’s informal sector from January 2020 when the first case was detected to 13 August 2021, when confirmed cases peaked, Poonsap Suanmuang Tulaphan, director of the Foundation for Labour and Employment Promotion (Homenet), remarked:

“For home based workers, the initial period of the covid pandemic affected their savings, by the second wave they had no savings and had to take loans and sell things like their sewing machines, and the third wave was the worst. For street vendors, those who are selling food are able to survive but their income is very low, those that cannot sell food cannot survive.”

Citing Homenet’s report, Poonsap said that all occupational groups except for domestic workers were earning less than 40% of their pre-Covid median earnings. Home-based workers and massage therapists fared worse, earning a median of zero Thai baht in mid-2021. Massage shops were not permitted to fully reopen until October 2021 and Thai borders did not fully reopen to vaccinated travellers until 1 November 2021. 

She said these drastic decreases in income brought about changes in household consumption as respondents reduced their quality of life and depleted their long-term assets in order to survive. She noted that although hunger is rarely discussed as a major problem in Thailand, “12% of respondents reported hunger among adults in their households in 2021 and about half had reduced their food consumption, skipped meals, or had less diverse meals than they preferred.”

In addition to reducing both food and non-food consumption, just over half (51%) of households had to borrow money. Poonsap pointed out most respondents received cash transfers from the government, with the notable exception of foreign workers, but only 20% of respondents reported receiving government loans, which come with their own set of issues. “This support helped workers to purchase food and basic essentials, but most said it was too small to help with other urgent expenses or to restart their livelihoods.”

Rising costs of energy, electricity, fuel, food, and LPG combined with inflation hitting a 14-year high have compounded problems faced by the informal workforce. With household savings already beaten down by Covid-19, many have had to stretch their banknotes further. 

Poonsap praised the government for its cash relief program but said that more needed to be done. “We also want jobs, interest-free loans for job promotion, and opportunities to develop necessary occupational skills like IT.”  She urged the government to recognise and support informal workers, the heart of the grassroots economy. 

Restrictive regulations

Street vending is commonly blamed for a variety of problems from congested streets and blocked sidewalks to clogged sewers and improper garbage disposal. The government has responded with rules and regulations to manage street vending at the municipal and national levels. Over the years, a number of Bangkok governors have championed campaigns to clean up the streets.

Preecha Thaisongkhroh, president of the Bangkok Confederation of Street Vendors spoke of vendors’ plight in the face both Covid-19 and government regulations. A vendor who sells pork noodles,  he remarked upon the suffering of his fellows and customers alike, saying that he felt “so very sad when customers ask for extra soup to share with their families.”

He categorised street vendors into two types: “lawful vendors who can meet state and district requirements and …[pause] I don't want to use ‘unlawful’ because there is a negative association … we have been generalised by society … seeing us as if everyone is doing bad things [when] people are just trying to make a living.”

He stated that those who could meet all the regulations were doing ok but noted that the second group needed help. He feels that Bangkok regulations targeting street vendors are the problem. “One noodle shop or pad thai shop can generate many job positions, but these rules are forcing us to stop our businesses.  Foreigners and Thai alike are finding fewer street vendors.”

The rules and regulations Preecha referred to - three national level acts, a city level ordinance, and a city level directive - are discussed in a WIEGO report. The Public Cleanliness and Orderliness Act of 1992, the Public Health Act of 1992, and the Land Traffic Act of 1979 together prohibit food preparation and the selling of commodities in public spaces. 

The laws also authorise local officers to regulate vending in public spaces, and prohibit the installation, placement, and hanging of items that obstruct traffic without permission from traffic officers. 

In Bangkok, ‘local officers’ include the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), the office of the Bangkok governor, district offices, and city inspectors. ‘Traffic officers’ are the Metropolitan Police Bureau (MPB).

A city-level BMA Ordinance of 2002 on Selling in Public Spaces and Footpaths follows in the footsteps of the earlier national act by providing guidelines to regulate street vending. It stipulates that street vendors obtain a license and leaves room for further regulation by public health officers, local officers, and the Bangkok governor.

The 2005 BMA Directive on Regulations and Conditions of Vending in Designated Areas builds upon the previous ordinances by prescribing a specific set of rules, including limits on the size of vending stalls, and required specified distances be kept between vendors and bus stops, skytrain and subway entrances, crosswalks, pedestrian bridges, and more. 

Inconsistent authority

The report notes that these rules and regulations give “immense authority” to BMA officials and MPB authorities, leaving street vendors at the whim of the Bangkok administration. Prevailing authorities are free to decide how lenient or stringent they will be in applying the law, leading to inconsistencies and confusion. According to the report, city vending policies are “at best, mildly inconsistent and, at worst, contradictory from one governor to the next.”

Bangkok’s current governor, Chadchart Sittipunt has advocated for the adoption of special street vending centres at designated spaces, a policy in line with the Singapore model which balances the needs of street vendors and the problems of unregulated vending. City Hall has yet to finalise criteria for selecting these spaces and their occupants. 

Preecha wants to see the regulations eased: “I want to ask the BMA to relax the rules and make them more practical.”  He likened the situation faced by street vendors to that of a child left behind in a hot car.

“Imagine a mother is driving to the supermarket with her child. She left the child in the car to shop. The child is suffocating because of the heat. It draws a crowd but no one dares to damage the glass to save the child. This is what the rules are. I want Chadchart to smash the window to save the child and save street vendors.”

In order to rehabilitate the city economy, Preecha suggested that the city starts with street vendors because they are connected with informal workers from various occupations. “If street vendors do better, so will the rest of the informal sector.

Jared Makana Kirkey is a Prachatai English intern from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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