Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

StreetNet International: Organizing street vendors towards formalization and economic empowerment

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with co-operators from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). On this occasion, ILO interviewed Ms Oksana Abboud, International Coordinator at StreetNet International.

Article | 16 July 2019

1. Could you tell us a bit about your background?

Ms Oksana Abboud
After my graduation from the Kyiv National Linguistic University, I started working at the Confederation of Free Trade Union of Ukraine (KVPU). My work at KVPU helped me deepen my values and understanding of social justice, human and workers’ rights and ‘trade unionism’ inside and outside Ukraine. It also motivated me to bring the new concept of ‘trade unionism’ into a post-Soviet Union society.

I got involved in StreetNet International – a global alliance of street vendors in the informal economy – when one of the KVPU affiliated organizations joined the alliance. At that time, the issue of informal economy was very new to us. I got interested in how to support informal workers for their recognition, protection and income. In 2013, I joined StreetNet International as Regional Organizer for Asian and Eastern European Affiliates, and more recently in June 2019, I became the StreetNet International Coordinator.

2. What is StreetNet?

A group photo at the 5th StreetNet International Congress in New Delhi, India
StreetNet International is an international alliance of membership-based organizations that unites informal traders, street and market vendors and hawkers around the world. Since its inception in 2002, StreetNet has supported its affiliates to access their economic and human rights through improving policy, regulatory, social and economic environments. It currently has 54 affiliate organizations in 49 countries around the world representing over 600,000 informal economy workers.

StreetNet aims to improve lives of street and market vendors and hawkers by:
  • Supporting them to organize for collective action and improved access to services (e.g. worker-owned enterprises, cooperatives, or credit, healthcare and insurance schemes)
  • Collecting data and creating knowledge base for effective advocacy and negotiations; and
  • Participating in policy dialogue and conducting awareness raising campaigns with its affiliates
StreetNet’s strategic plan for 2020-2024 is guided by the following core objectives:
  • Promoting the implementation of the ILO Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015 (No. 204) (e.g. legal recognition, protection and simple administrative procedures for informal economy workers);
  • Advocating for more inclusive cities for street vendors and other informal economy workers in line with the SDG 5, 8 and 11;
  • Advancing the interests of small-scale cross-border traders by means of Simplified Trade Regimes (STRs); and
  • Strengthening capacities of its affiliates and other informal economy organizations to organize street vendors for effective advocacy and improved access to education, training and services
A voting process during the 6th StreetNet International Congress in Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan
As the majority of street vendors and informal traders around the world are women, StreetNet specifically aims to address gender equality and promote women empowerment across its work.

3. What do you think is the role of cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy (SSE) organizations in advancing the rights and improving the livelihoods of street vendors?

Street vendors of StreetNet affiliate members in Dakar, Senegal
In developing countries, most of the working population are in the informal economy. Informal economy workers are under precarious conditions and at a constant risk of losing income sources. They also face daily violence and harassment from public authorities and law enforcement agents, although they make significant contributions to the economy.

Cooperatives and other SSE organizations can provide a pathway to formalization for these workers. At StreetNet, we promote the SSE model as an ‘alternative approach to business’ whose main goal is not only financial returns but also social benefits for their members and wider communities. The values of SSE are closely linked to decent work and social inclusion and can contribute to the development of a balanced and stable society and democracy.

IDEA - StreetNet Affiliate from Cambodia celebrating International Street Vendors' Day 2019 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
StreetNet affiliates are creating different forms of SSE organizations, including cooperatives, trusts, savings and credit groups, health and insurance groups. We advocate for supportive legislation and policies for SSE organizations so that they can have access to finance, technical assistance, social security and tax benefits where possible.

4. What are some of the challenges and opportunities for cooperatives and other SSE organizations of street vendors?

Street vendors need to make investments for in their businesses, but getting even small loans from formal banking institutions is very challenging for many of them. As a solution, StreetNet affiliates from Africa, Asia and Latin America have organized to create credit unions for their members that provide small loans in partnership with banks and solidarity funds. This type of SSE enterprise is getting quite popular among informal economy traders as they realize benefits of such mutual help schemes.

SEWA - StreetNet Affiliate from India celebrating International Vendors' Day 2019 in Ahmadabad, India
There are also a growing number of initiatives on promoting social protection for street vendors through SSE organizations. For instance, a StreetNet affiliate in Senegal has been organizing awareness raising activities about health insurance cooperatives of street vendors. Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Cooperative Federation in India is one of the biggest StreetNet affiliates. SEWA has ensured that more than 400 street vendor members have gained access to street vending licences, pension, insurance and renewal of identification cards through cooperative schemes. Our affiliates also have created housing cooperatives in some cities in Bangladesh.

However, a lack of knowledge and capacity on how to start and manage member-owned organizations like cooperatives in a democratic and transparent manner is one of the key challenges faced by street vendors. There is a need for more training and awareness raising activities on cooperatives and SSE organizations at the national, regional and international levels.

The ILO Recommendation No. 204 includes clear references to the role of cooperatives and SSE. This has been significant to us in our work promoting the SSE model for street vendors. At StreetNet we will continue to support SSE organizations of our affiliates as a real investment to build solidarity, improve livelihoods and enable active participation in decision-making among street vendors and informal economy workers.

Spotlight interviews with cooperators is a series of interviews with cooperative leaders around the world, whom ILO officials have encountered in the course of their work with cooperatives. This article does not constitute an endorsement by the ILO.