“Surviving is not a crime”: Barcelona’s migrant street vendors organise


“We cannot understand how you can end up in prison just for selling things on the streets. Surviving is not a crime,” says Khalifa Clandestino, a worker, organiser and artist in Barcelona.

Originally from Senegal, Khalifa works with Tras La Manta (‘Behind the cloth’ in English, which refers to the fabric on which they lay their merchandise), a collective of workers and activists that helps migrant street vendors to fight for their right to work.

However, it is not considered an official trade union because most of its members do not have the legal right to live or work in Spain.

Street vending without an allocated pitch is illegal in the country, yet in Barcelona, a few hundred manteros have no choice but to earn a living this way. These migrant sellers – mainly from Senegal but also from other countries in Africa and Asia – sell bags, trainers and other cheap accessories to tourists.

As they are undocumented migrants they cannot work formally, but the illegality of their activity creates a conflict: whenever the vendors settle in a location, the police evict them.

This is why they recently took to the streets to protest.

On 16 November 2015, hundreds of manteros and their supporters marched to the City Hall to demand recognition. This was followed by a series of ‘flash occupations’; the council is now in negotiations about integrating the manteros into the formal economy.

The programme, which is expected to cost €1.7million and will run until 2018, consists mostly of social assistance and creating a co-operative.

However, it seems these measures will only be extended to legal migrants, who are in the minority amongst manteros. Legal street vendors, who sell everything from cheap souvenirs to artisan crafts – have also been invited to participate in the talks, but they have refused.

As legal street vendors pay fees over €500 a month to be able to work in Barcelona, they worry about the competition that manteros create.

César García from Unión de Profesionales y Trabajadores Autónomos (UPTA), a trade union that represents legal street vendors as well as other self-employed workers in Spain, tells Equal Times that there is regulation but that even with residency or citizenship status the manteros could not sell on the streets without a licence.

“The real problem is the irregular situation of the manteros,” he says. “UPTA suggests they should be regularised, with a real plan on how to access self-employment.”

But the manteros face a major dilemma. They need to work illegally to survive, but a fine – or indeed, any criminal penalty – makes it even harder to get legal documents.

Without papers, it is impossible to get formal employment in Spain. And even with papers, migrants are the worst affected by unemployment in Spain, which currently stands at over 20 per cent.

For Khalifa, the aim of organising undocumented migrant workers is clear: "We want street selling to be decriminalised because no human is illegal. All we want is to eat and pay our rent. If they do not let people sell, in the end we will become thieves."


“Working is my human right”

Even though not all street vendors in Barcelona are members of the union, most know about it. It has over a hundred members. It could be called an assembly, one supporter told Equal Times, but a political decision was taken to call it a trade union because the manteros identify as workers.

Part of Tras La Manta’s work is to fight the political battle, but the group is also a safe space for vendors to come together and share their experiences of an everyday life that is very hard. On a good day manteros can earn €30, if their work is not interrupted by the police, and the threat of violence is ever-present on the streets.

But the manteros emphasise that they do not want to bring any harm to society; they just want to work. "Most of us come from poor countries. We need to earn money and send it to our families", says Masum Hossein, who is from Bangladesh and has lived in Barcelona for two years.

"If you have papers you can work in a restaurant or in the supermarket", he explains. "Working on the streets is very difficult. Sometimes the police take your things, your mobile, your money, everything. It is not human. But working is my human right."

Khalifa is keen to point out that globally, there are many more people working and selling goods in the informal economy than there are people selling things legally.

And while informal work is usually associated with the Global South, it is not uncommon in Europe either: 18.8 per cent of workers in Spain work in the informal economy, according to World Bank research from 2011.

This includes many different types of work outside of formal enterprises, of which street vending is only one example. But what all of these informal jobs have in common is that their contribution to the economy often goes unrecognised.

“Informal work is regarded by governments across the world as chaotic, disorganised and undisciplined. Intent on cleaning up the streets from this temporal and valueless work, informal traders are subject to violent displacement, harassment and confiscation of their goods by local authorities,” says Saranel Benjamin, who heads the campaign on informal work at the NGO War on Want.

But she explains that informal street vendors around the world are fighting to demand that their contributions to society, to the economy and to public spaces be recognised.

“Much can be achieved through collective and alternate forms of organising, the most important being that it gives power back to marginalised, invisible people,” says Benjamin.