HomeNewsAsia's street food hawkers struggle during coronavirus lockdowns

Asia’s street food hawkers struggle during coronavirus lockdowns

Authorities in Asia must assist street food sellers struggling to make a living as the new coronavirus outbreak shutters offices and tourism, and forces people to stay indoors, labour and urban experts have said. 

More than 420,000 people have been infected by the new coronavirus across the world, and about 19,000 have died, according to a Reuters tally.

In an effort to slow infection rates, many countries and cities have imposed strict lockdown measures.

While many food businesses have remained open by offering online deliveries, few food hawkers — who favor locations in public areas popular with pedestrians — use such services because of the cost and their informal status.

A Vendor wearing a mask to protect against both air pollution and the new coronavirus in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan. 27. (shutterstock.com photo)

“Clampdowns are catastrophic for them (street vendors) since they operate on a daily basis and lead a hand-to-mouth existence,” said Ajay Suri, a Bangkok-based manager at Cities Alliance, a global partnership for urban poverty reduction.

“Governments should design a bailout package for informal sector workers, including street vendors, whereby direct cash transfers are made to their bank accounts to help them survive,” Suri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Asia is famous for its street food, with hawkers serving fresh foods and local delicacies in cities including Hong Kong, Bangkok, Jakarta, Hanoi and Mumbai. Some vendors have even won Michelin stars. 

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They use vans, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles, carts, tables and chairs, or even a simple piece of cardboard laid out on pavements to transport and sell their foods.

Delivery drivers waiting to pick up groceries from Villa supermarket’s Sukhumvit branch in downtown Bangkok, Thailand during the new coronavirus pandemic on March 21. (shutterstock.com photo)

As well as attracting tourists, selling street food also provides livelihoods for young people, women and migrants, while helping keep the cost of living low in cities. 

But as part of the informal economy that rarely pays taxes or receives government protections, reliable data on the numbers of street vendors is hard to come by.

In many of Asia’s mega-cities, they are estimated to number more than 300,000, said John Taylor, an adviser for the Food and Agriculture Organization in Dhaka.

Governments should control food prices to ensure basic commodities do not become unaffordable, he said, adding that  ensuring social safety nets reach the most vulnerable was vital.

‘People are afraid’

As Asian cities expand and modernize, authorities often view street food vendors as a hindrance to progress and target them for forced evictions, although some cities have made efforts to accommodate them and help raise sanitation standards.

In Bangkok, Thailand, where street vendors have rallied against evictions, earnings are down by up to 80 percent since a partial lockdown began last week, according to Poonsap Tulaphan, a director of HomeNet Thailand, a network of informal workers.

People wear protective masks while getting food from a street vendor outside of Icon Siam shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand in February. (shutterstock.com photo)

“Street food vendors are still able to sell food for takeaway, but there are fewer customers,” she said. “Prices of commodities are also much higher but they can’t raise prices.”

While some Asian governments have unveiled financial schemes to help businesses and workers cope with the new coronavirus outbreak, many have failed to provide assistance to gig, casual and informal workers. 

Measures in Thailand include cash handouts and soft loans, but many street vendors find the application process challenging, and continue to ply their trade, said Poonsap.

“Business is not so good because offices and shops are closed, and people are afraid to go out,” said Wat Laithi, a street vendor who sells noodles and fried snacks in Bangkok.

“But I have no other option. I have to make a living for my family.”

Reporting by Michael Taylor and Rina Chandran for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.

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