Decent work and sustainable livelihoods: Why street vendors need to create co-operatives

The world’s 2bn informal economy workers need social protection, labour rights and decent working conditions. Co-operatives are the answer, according to Alberto Santana, vice president of StreetNet International.

Alberto SantanaIn November 2023, a workshop took place in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on the topic of the social and solidarity economy, focusing on its growing importance in many sectors of the global economy, and especially to promote it as a model to improve the lives of informal economy workers.

The workshop was organised by StreetNet International, a global alliance of street vendors and informal traders, created in South Africa in 2002. For 20 years the organisation has been at the forefront of the struggles for informal economy workers’ rights and for their inclusion into civic space and civil society. 

Social and solidarity economy and co-operative schemes are a vital source of livelihood for informal economy workers. Worker-led cooperatives are an inclusive way to achieve decent work for all workers. 


The social and solidarity economy as an alternative to the economic hegemony 

The social and solidarity economy is a radically different approach to economic development and economic justice. This aspect has been recognised by the United Nations General Assembly, with the adoption of the resolution ‘Promoting the Social and Solidarity Economy for Sustainable Development’ in 2023. 

The social and solidarity economy is an alternative to the capitalist and neoliberal hegemonic system that centres profit over the wellbeing of people and the planet. We have witnessed, and are still witnessing, the damaging effects of such a system. These effects are particularly visible on the very margins of society: the Global South and the informal economy. That is why we believe that the movement to popularise social and solidarity economy can also start from us and be managed by us. 


Kickstarting a worker-led strategy

StreetNet is committed to kickstarting a worker-led strategy for the popularisation of the social and solidarity economy among street and market vendors. The world’s 2bn informal economy workers make up more than 60% of all workers globally, according to the International Labour Organization. The majority lack social protection, rights at work and decent working conditions.

StreetNet is committed to kickstarting a worker-led strategy for the popularisation of the social and solidarity economy among street and market vendors

The first step is creating an effective global network of co-operative leaders who can learn from one another, exchange and build capacity.

During the workshop in Sao Paulo, we had the opportunity to meet and network with several distinguished guests from Brazil and from around the world, representing important institutions and organisations: the International Labour Organization’s Cooperative Unit, the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Social and Solidarity Economy and the Labour Ministry of Brazil among others. 

StreetNet International workshop

Informal economy workers came together in Brazil to discuss the opportunities offered by worker-led co-operatives

Another fundamental step is advocacy. The social and solidarity economy is an alternative to the current unequal economic system and it can be a way to ensure social protection to workers who do not have access to it via the state. But we need the support of local and national authorities to facilitate the creation of co-operative schemes through the existence of enabling legal frameworks, and to recognise and protect informal economy workers. The social and solidarity economy is one of the ways towards a smooth formalisation of the informal economy in general. StreetNet will leverage its advocacy power and international standing to help make our voices heard and considered.


From India to Nigeria

Some of our comrades around StreetNet’s global constituency presented at the workshops their experiences in developing co-operative schemes, demonstrating that the social and solidarity economy is already a reality in the informal economy. The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union for self-employed women workers across India, is one of the oldest organisations promoting co-operative schemes among informal economy workers. It was founded in 1972 and currently counts almost 3m members across 18 states in India. Since its inception, SEWA has also formed a co-operative bank for its members. More than 88% of the co-operatives supported by SEWA have been successful. 

The SEWA Cooperative Federation was created by the SEWA and works closely alongside SEWA. It was founded in 1992, and it brings together women-led co-operatives of the country, helping them participate in the labour market and ensuring livelihoods, offering capacity-building services, consultations, and training in marketing, digital literacy and communications. 

Another example of how informal economy workers, especially street vendors, work to establish successful co-operative schemes comes from Nigeria. Comrade Gbenga Komolafe, also part of the international council of StreetNet, talked about the experience of his organisation, the Federation of Informal Workers of Nigeria (FIWON). FIWON has formed a savings and credit co-operative society that provides financial services to its members so that members can save their money and borrow when in need. This is fundamental for workers in the informal economy, who are in most cases excluded from social protection and have limited access to banking and other formal financial services. FIWON aims to promote the social and solidarity economy in Nigeria, and at its 2nd Congress in September 2023, FIWON delegates adopted a new resolution on the social and solidarity economy. 


The importance of workers’ organisation 

StreetNet is, first of all, an alliance of workers. We work for the legal recognition and the inclusion of street vendors in the labour movement and in the civic and political life of various countries. 

Our path towards a social and solidarity economy cannot be separated from workers’ organisations. Co-operative schemes will help informal traders achieve decent working conditions and sustainable livelihoods: but this will not happen without unionisation and global solidarity. Co-operatives can be a tool for liberation, but only if we work together.

Street vendors in Rio de Janeiro

Street vendors in Calle Uruguayana in Rio de Janeiro photographed by Andressa Ocker of Ocker Visuals


Header image: Street vendor Adji Deme AvLamine Gueye in Sandaga Market in Dakar, Senegal photographed by Marta Moreiras


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