Fake handbags, genuine papers

Fake handbags, genuine papers

Senegalese community holds demonstration in Madrid (Spain) following death of street vendor Mame Mbaye.

(Roberto Martín)

His name was Mame Mbaye, he was 35 years old and he lived in Madrid. It is not for his life that he is now known in Spain, but his death.

Mame used to be one of many. One of the many who spend their days selling replica Chanel bags and fake Nike in garish colours. He was a mantero, the term used in Spain to refer to the multitude of anonymous, unlicensed vendors who lay out their wares on blankets along retail streets, promenades and around train stations.

Mame died on 15 March. His heart failed minutes after fleeing the police. And it is for that very reason that we know his name today.

It is impossible to know whether his heart attack was a direct result of that last dash, but the death of Mame Mbaye has nonetheless become a symbol, the final proof that the phenomenon has gone too far.

"We knew this was going to happen. It was Mame who lost his life, but it could have been any one of us," said one of his colleagues in a press conference.

The sale of counterfeit goods is considered illegal, a breach of industrial property rights, and represents unfair competition for small businesses. It is nonetheless an everyday sight in the big cities, and has become part and parcel of the urban landscape. Over 12 per cent of Spaniards admit to having bought fake goods, such as clothes, perfume and, above all, sportswear.

Every so often, the police takes action and, struck by fear, the street vendors escape as best they can. They run, losing part of their wares, falling and unintentionally dragging anyone in their path with them. In 2017, police operations against street vendors rose by 43 per cent in Madrid, reaching over 11,000 in total, an average of 31 chases a day.

Blanket-top sales and the law

Alioune Thiam arrived in Barcelona in 2009. “Blanket-top vending was my only option. I had no papers and needed to work to pay the rent.” Thiam is from Senegal, as are most of the unlicensed street traders. The majority are young migrants without residence or work permits. According to a survey conducted by the NGO Cáritas Mallorca, 68 per cent of manteros are undocumented.

“The immigration law is too repressive. It is very difficult for non-EU citizens to regularise their status,” explains lawyer Marcelo Belgrano. Irregular status and informal work are part of a vicious circle, one leading to the other and vice versa.

The only way undocumented migrants are able to regularise their status is through a process that takes at least three years. That is 36 months, 1095 days of invisibility, during which the applicant cannot work, rent housing, sign up for Spanish classes or follow training courses. The law itself forces them underground.

“Forcing people to be invisible for three years in order to get the papers they need is criminal. How can they survive if they are not allowed to work?” says Belgrano.

Dozens of manteros were jailed every week for selling in the street up until 2010, when, thanks to public pressure, it went from being a criminal to an administrative offence. In 2015, however, with the reform of the public security legislation, the government reintroduced blanket-top vending into the Penal Code.

As a result, manteros are now faced with the confiscation of their merchandise, a fine of at least €500 (around US$600), a potential prison term of between six and twenty-four months, or even deportation. And it does not end there.

“The fact that it is a penal offence means that they are left with a criminal record, which makes regularising their situation impossible. That’s why they have to keep working as manteros. It’s a catch 22 situation,” says Elena Vázquez, a lawyer for the NGO Red Acoge. These are the reasons behind stories such as that of Mame Mbaye, a man who had been living in Spain for 12 years and died without ever having managed to get his papers.

The paradox of proportionality

On 29 March 2017, manteros, organised by their own trade unions, demonstrated for the first time in front of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, calling for the decriminalisation of street vending. On 30 January 2018, they did it again, only this time in the heart of Europe, in Brussels. In the wake of Mame’s death, the parliamentary group Podemos decided to table a motion calling on the government to backtrack, and to make unlicensed street vending an administrative rather than a criminal offence.

“Based on the principle of minimum intervention and proportionality, this matter should not be dealt with under the Penal Code. Initiatives aimed at ensuring mere subsistence should not be criminalised,” argues Ione Belarra, a member of parliament for Podemos.

Belarra presents an illustrative paradox when talking about proportionality: as the law currently stands in Spain, defrauding €120,000 (around US$145,000) is treated as a simple misdemeanour, and yet buying a fake Carolina Herrera handbag for €10 and selling it for €15 can land you in prison.

For the moment, the Interior Ministry, retailers’ associations and the big brands are closing ranks. “It is a matter of property rights, which have an owner. We cannot send out the message that they can be infringed with impunity,” argues José Antonio Moreno, head of ANDEMA (Brand Protection Association).

Moreno presents the data collected by the European Union Intellectual Property Office: an estimated 67,000 jobs and over €7 billion (around US$8.45 billion) lost in Spain due to fake goods. “We always recommend that the brands press charges. Penal action must be taken against the offenders, even if it’s only a fine.”

That is why every time a street vendor is arrested, the case goes to court. The brand versus the mantero. When the brand does not press charges, the Public Prosecutor’s Office does. “Ultimately, it is the most vulnerable and the most visible, those who are the least responsible, who end up paying,” says lawyer Marcelo Belgrano.

Behind each replica handbag, every fake garment, is a fraudulent business that currently controls 2.5 per cent of world trade, moving counterfeit goods from China or Turkey, for example, to industrial estates in Europe, and that, according to Interpol, ends up financing criminal organisations and even terrorists.

The blanket is just one of the final points of sale, and by no means the only one. Increasingly, a large share of the merchandise does not end up being sold on the roadside but online. The range of fake goods goes far beyond what is sold on the street. “Anything and everything is pirated, from cosmetics, drinks, cleaning products, pharmaceutical goods and tools to auto parts,” explains researcher Josep Planelles.

Possible alternatives

Mame Mbaye spent almost half his life selling imitation perfumes in the centre of Madrid, but what he really loved was cooking. He dreamed of one day working behind the stove of a good restaurant. “He never had the chance to do what he really loved,” lamented his colleagues in the days following his death.

It was their way of explaining that no one chooses to be a mantero; no one risks their life and their savings, leaves their family and their country to end up like that.
“If there were decent work, no one would be selling on the streets,” insists Alioune Thiam. He managed to escape that life some years ago and is now part of the Diomcoop cooperative, a groundbreaking project, backed by the Barcelona City Council, to help street vendors break free from illegality.

Diomcoop provides street vendors with training and helps them to apply for their papers. They, in return, switch from selling fake goods to legal merchandise, mainly African handicraft and fashion items.

“The cooperative is empowering people. It gives us the sense that we can change our lives,” says Thiam.

Similar social projects exist – such as the Top Manta brand – but they are still small-scale, high-cost operations that are difficult to sustain. The cooperative itself, for example, only currently provides work to 15 out of the estimated 300 or so manteros in Barcelona alone.

“The only lasting solution would be to change the immigration law,” says Ignacio Oliete, a member of Diomcoop’s technical team, “But in the meantime we have to look for alternatives. If we limit ourselves to criticising the situation, all we are left with is the repression.” And the repressive approach, alone, has been giving the same results for almost 30 years.

This article has been translated from Spanish.