Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno kicked off his first term in June by making big changes to the Philippines’ capital city. Promising a “New Manila” to his constituents, he quickly went to work on cleaning the streets of ambulant vendors to address the city’s congestion problem. As one of the world’s most densely populated cities, the near 2 million citizens of Manila have had persistent problems balancing traffic, living spaces and spots to peddle their trades.
Moreno’s clearing operations made waves in its first month, with the public servant himself making personal appearances and inviting the press to showcase his administration’s strong policy enforcement.
He declared: “I want to show that I can walk the talk.”
By banning vendors from public and major roads, Manila began to look a little like a changed city, expansive with less of its customary commotion. Previously packed streets, shopping districts and market areas were made near spotless. Peddlers, drivers of the everyday informal economy, had been erased.
Many praised Moreno for his decisive efforts, made in such a short period of time. With all of Metro Manila’s 16 cities having problems with clogged streets and shrinking urban spaces, it’s no surprise the new mayor seemed like a beacon of maverick leadership.
The city of Manila also targeted structures. Even those erected by the local government were ordered to be stripped from roads.
No doubt, however, the most affected here are the poor whose livelihoods and daily incomes depend on informal economic activities, on peddling and vending on the streets.
Where were the vendors to go?
Moreno has yet to give a clear statement on this, aside from saying that he plans for vendors to be “organized” by the government.
Moreno actions spurred a nationwide implementation of the same approach to city decongestion. During his last State of the Nation address in July, President Rodrigo Duterte echoed Moreno’s initive, ordering the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) to “reclaim all public roads that are being used for private ends.”
Taking this cue, the DILG released its Memorandum Circular 2019 – 121 on July 29 directing all city governments nationwide to undertake clearing operations of their own along public roads. The memo issued a 60-day deadline for the cities to achieve significant results.
The deadline has since expired and DILG told The Diplomat that while only 97 mayors failed to comply, 1,148 cities made strides to varying degrees. According to DILG Undersecretary and spokesperson Jonathan Malaya, Duterte has since “directed Secretary Eduardo Año to continue the program until the end of his term (2022).” Malaya revealed that there will be quarterly validations and assessments done by the agency to sustain this performance.
Nonetheless, the bigger problem is something both city and national governments have yet to tackle head on: What to do with the thousands of displaced vendors?
According to a 2013 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), the informal economy, including vendors, make up 72.5 percent of employment in the Philippines, barring the agricultural sector. Everyday street items are bought by consumers at low prices and as many who engage in this for a living would attest, it is “isang kahig, isang tuka” or “living from hand to mouth” each day as the Filipino idiom goes.
Nowhere to Go
Diamond Kalaw, a street vendor from Quezon City in Metro Manila is the president of the Muslim-Christian Vendors Association in the Batasan area. She told The Diplomat that since the clearing operations began, families from their group have been experiencing greater hunger and hardship.
“We are already poor as it is, not being able to sell on the streets has made each day an even tougher struggle,” says Kalaw, who sells household items on one of the city’s footbridges.
She disclosed that Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte had promised that the vendors would be relocated into a new public market under construction. However, they were later informed that this market could take up to two years to complete, meaning they had to find other sources of income in the meantime.
“These clearing operations are unjust. We do not mind being relocated to a public market, but preventing us from continuing our livelihood is also the same as condemning us to greater poverty,” said the community leader.
National urban poor group Kadamay has also hit out at the decongestion programs, claiming it violates the rights of poor citizens in the city. Chairperson Bea Arellano explained that “sections of the public may have hailed the clearing practices as a positive move, but we should also be paying equal if not more attention to how this will adversely affect the household economies of poor or ambulant vendors on which so many poor families are relying on. Their plight should not be invisible.”
Both Kadamay and the Muslim-Christian Vendors Association have staged protests together in various cities. Most notably in Caloocan and Quezon City. Both times the respective mayor’s office has responded that they are still looking for viable alternatives for the displaced.
“It is clear that the welfare of vendors, those who slave away every day on the streets to make a living, whose presence is felt by all manner of people who walk the streets in need of food and other basic commodities, has not been anywhere near the list of priorities for the government. We urge the city governments to take their circumstances into greater account,” said Arellano.
Arellano added that in order to gain a better grasp of the situation, officials have to take a look at the root causes that push people to work as ambulant vendors for basic income. Stark poverty effectively pushes people to resort to such informal means of conducting business. Renting space and registering a formal shop not only costs a lot of money in the private economy, but requires unaffordable registration costs with local government. Nowhere on the DILG’s orders are there any guidelines on how to safeguard the economic security of those affected by the street clearing initiatives.
On the other hand, one vendor’s case received some attention for its imminent return to its original selling spot. Books From the Underground, a street book store owned and operated by Aj Laberinto, was initially taken off a Manila underpass during the clearing.
But then patrons and supporters launched an online campaign to bring back Laberinto’s wide array of books sold at reasonable prices. Mayor Moreno heeded his case and says the city of Manila is open to re-integrating Laberinto into becoming a legitimate businessman.
Laberinto expressed gratitude for the support his shop has received from the mayor and his customers, especially. “I consider myself lucky to be given another chance with an imminent return to more or less the same spot near Manila’s political center.”
However, the humble storekeeper feels conflicted about the entire affair. “I feel caught in the middle and unsure where to stand on this issue. The law on one hand or the lack of order on which so many livelihoods are at stake on the other. I hope most are given spaces to make ends meet without being obstructive to the other tenets of city life.”
Professor Andre Ortega from the University of the Philippines’ Population Institute has studied urban planning and spaces extensively and opined that “building an inclusive city absolutely requires the active and collective participation of street vendors in urban planning. In a city like Manila, vendors play a big role in daily life and the greater economic schemes. Hence, they are warranted a say in how spaces are to be utilized and what shape the city will take.”
On the whole, the entirety of the Philippines’ everyday economies are shifting toward exclusion says Kadamay, the national urban poor group. Jeepneys, the most common and cheapest form of public transportation are being phased out, massive infrastructure projects are replacing low income communities, and streets are being cleared of the hustle and transactions that come with vendors. These aggressive developmental models discount the economic security of the already impoverished and the public should not turn a blind eye in favor of a barren street.
Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines.