By Penial Kabilo, Project Lead, Vendors Collective Voices, HELP Resources
Quick statistics: With the markets closed since March 28 2020, 1400 vendors in the Wewak market could not earn a living for 4-5 weeks now. At least 500 street vendors sold outside the market. And at least another 500 had so called table markets around a small radius from the market. So approx 2500 had their livelihood greatly impacted.
With most urban markets around the country temporarily closed due to the Corona virus threat, local informal economy workers are already
feeling the brunt of this global pandemic. Unlike workers in the formal systems who are guaranteed some social security during the lock-down, informal workers are not eligible for such social protection.
Social distancing and staying at home are death sentences for this group of workers that work in a grey area of the economy. Those in authority are of the perception that informal economy workers are involved in illegal activities, they are unimportant, that it is largely women’s work therefore is of no real significance and is less productive. However, these workers play a crucial role in the functioning of urban centres. Market vendors maintain urban food security, provide nutritious street food, reduce poverty by offering low cost food alternatives and other services.
Their absences on the streets and in markets around the country in the last one and half months is surely affecting the proper functioning of urban life. Urban food security is under threat during the lock-down, as not all urban residents
are able to stock up on store goods. Much needed cheap local organic food is not reaching consumers, the absence of this marginalized and vulnerable group is beginning to be noticed by the majority and those in authority.
If there was a time that those in authority can provide social assistance to informal workers, now is the time. But for a country like PNG where social security systems are almost non-existent, it is an impossible task.
However, such decisions are made to safeguard our health and minimize the spread of the Corona Virus. A sad fact that many informal economy workers and the general public must accept and live with.
Closure of Wewak Main Market and other privately run markets.
The closure of the main market took effect on 28th March and has been so for more than 1 month now. The Provincial Chairman for the COVID- 19 response team recently announced through a circular that the main market will still be closed until such time the threat from COVID-19 is neutralized, for time being designated areas for temporary markets are at Boram/Moem Junction, Kaindi and Yawasoro. Small suburban markets are encouraged with social distancing and good hygiene practices to be observed. Vendors at other districts are encouraged to trade in their respective districts.
The Wewak Town Market on average has 1200 vendors and is one of the main revenue earners for Wewak Urban Local Level Government, with an estimated 1.4 million Kina (450 000 US Dollars) rolling into the Local Level Government’s account per year (HELP Resources Baseline report 2018). With its closure, revenue shortfall is imminent, according to the Wewak Urban LLG who went on the local news, casual staff will be laid off due to shortfall in revenue. They have since been pressuring the Provincial COVID-19 task-force chairman to reopen the market.
Vendors are also affected by the closure, in one of HELP Resources community outreach to Hawain, a village located outside of the urban boundaries, village women have expressed dissatisfaction at the current situation. They have no space to bring their produce to sell and the designated areas available for trading are not safe. They have made pleas to authorities to have some proper systems in place during this state of emergency.
Since then, pressure from vendors, the general public and the Wewak Urban Local Level Government has made the Provincial Covid-19 task-force to reconsider their decision. Just recently in our meeting with the Local Level Government Officials 28th April HELP Resources has been notified that a decision has been reached on the 22nd April to reopen the Town Market on the 5th of May. However other smaller suburban markets and the two privately run markets (Dagua and Kreer) will not be opened to the general public, a decision that will surely create some hot air. Scholar Sengi who is an urban reseller has already made an appeal to local authorities to reopen Dagua Market, she buys betel nut from rural vendors and resells this at Dagua Market. Since the closure of the market she and other urban resellers were forced to sell at their respective communities and other unfamiliar territories. She has since noticed a big decline in her revenue and cannot fully support her family.
Other vendors who depend mostly on informal economy have all expressed similar sentiments. Not only does the market closures affect their daily income but also the lack of customers. The travel restrictions and the general panic of contracting the virus has caused people to stay at home. Maria, 70-year-old woman who sells
home baked scones in front of her house is one such vendor who is finding it very hard to make ends meet due to this situation. Her husband is unemployed, and their only source of income is from her daily sales.
Food security in Wewak
The closure of the Main market and two privately run markets has affected the food security of urban residents. These markets supply fresh vegetables and other local spices as well as fresh fish and other sea foods. Market closure means no supply. Not all urban residents in Wewak can afford to relay on store goods for two weeks, markets complement their meals. Nutritious organic foods from the rural areas are in demand at these times. The designated markets in operation are operating on ad hoc, no regulations on prices and no form of management. Their operations are based on mutual understanding between vendors and customers, security is also a concern as these markets are pushed to the fringes of the town.
HELP Responses to this crisis
The State of Emergency and COVID-19 threat has not deterred the team from HELP Resources from going ahead with our project activities, however on a lesser scale than was expected. The team has realised that informal economy vendors are the most affected group within our societies at this very challenging time, hence the office must operate to serve, protect and represent their interests. The Project, Vendors Voice shaping Informal Economy’s main activity for this year, the informal economy community information sessions will be used as a forum to encourage, communicate and strengthen vendor’s spirits at this dark period. Moreover, HELP Resources is also in dialogue with Local Government and other partners to assist with the reopening of the main market. The office is also assisting women who cannot sell their handicraft by advertising on social media. All our field activities are strictly planned with close observations to State of Emergency rules and COVID-19 Health requirements.
Penial Kabilo, Project Lead, Vendors Voice Shaping Informal Economy Development. Penial’s main role is to provide leadership in the projects operations that includes leading a cadre of community based IE advocates, provide advice to existing vendor’s association and guide formations of new associations, providing training to local government officials, vendors and other stakeholders on Informal economy development and also liaise between HELP Resources and local government on the projects development. Plus maintain and provide updates on the project development on social media.
Amid the doom and gloom of COVID-19, some positives are slowly emerging for informal economy workers, especially the market vendors and the residents of Wewak town. A brief brainstorming meeting was held today with partners from Wewak Urban Local Level Government and Wewak Town Commission. The main agenda was on the effects of COVID-19 on the informal economy in Wewak and how best HELP Resources can assist with the reopening of Wewak Town Market with respect to current SOE rules and COVID-19 health measures. We have been assured by Mr. Kabaru and the Deputy Mayor that the Town Market will reopen on May 5th. Unfortunately, all other roadside markets will remain closed. Other designated markets at Boram Junction, Old Airstrip, Kaindi and Yawasoro will remain open for the time being.
Information Session at Tui village, Hawain by HELP Resources on the Informal Economy and the importance of vendor’s voice. With the current (COVID) restrictions and closure on Wewak’s main market, rural vendors are finding it very tough, the importance of having a united voice at these uncertain times is vital in bringing rural vendors concerns to relevant authorities.