Eviction of traders on Robb St underscores city’s awkward stranglehold on urban vending

The four female vendors who had agreed to leave their consignments of fruit and vegetables unprotected and walk the two blocks west along Robb Street to engage the Stabroek Business on their unceremonious eviction from their trading spots on Robb Street between Alexander Street and Bourda Street seemed calm but pensive when they arrived at the newspaper’s office just after night had fallen. Their plight had materialized much earlier in the day when they had arrived in the afternoon to meet the space in which they trade barricaded. When they enquired they were told by stern-faced members of the City Constabulary that their expulsion from the area had been effected on the orders of the Town Clerk. The four, and others whom this newspaper spoke with later in the evening all said that no reason was given. (Vending resumed yesterday after a deal was reached on Wednesday between the city and vendors).

Town Clerk Royston King
Town Clerk Royston King

The talk which the Stabroek Business had heard in the course of the verbal to-ing and fro-ing among larger numbers of the displaced vendors was about the action being a response to City Hall’s dissatisfaction with the uncleanliness of the area. If sanitation is City Hall’s issue it is an enormous red herring. Something is seriously wrong with a system where garbage transgressions, real or contrived (the four vendors who came to the Stabroek News vehemently deny that the trading area is badly kept) can trigger the arbitrary eviction of more than 100 long-standing vendors from their trading spaces by a single City official.

Among the vendors there a near unanimity in the view that the Town Clerk’s orders are attended by generous measures of arrogance and bombast. It raises the question as to whether City Hall, on the whole, does not need reminding that its administrative authority cannot be allowed to trump the substantive authority of central government to ensure that what passes for managing the municipal affairs of the city does not descend into an ugly regime of repetitive muscle-flexing.

Ashnimi Shahoud, one of the four vendors who agreed to meet and talk with the Stabroek Business appeared more bemused than angry when she related to this newspaper what had transpired. She had arrived in the area where she has been trading for eighteen years, from her home in Haslington, to find it barricaded. She had learnt from the constables on duty that the vendors would be stopped from trading there immediately. The constables had said – and later confirmed this to the Stabroek Business – that their orders had not been attended by information of the reasons for the decision.

It was the same with the other three women, Alison Fowler, Nadira Indal and Patricia. The scale of the disruption resulting from the unceremonious eviction had left them all shell-shocked and pondering their next move. As we spoke dozens of other vendors were occupying the perimeter areas close to the prohibited space, millions of dollars of farm produce in trucks, vans and on the ground. No trading meant that much of the produce would spoil. That meant loss of income and delayed payments to the farmers from whom the vendors had bought their fruit and vegetables. Some of the farmers and the owners of trucks and vans that had conveyed the vendors to market were sitting idly hoping that something would give, trading would resume and they would be paid for their goods and their services. Up to around 20:00 hrs. on Tuesday evening the trading area remained deserted, cordoned off and superintended by two indifferent-seeming constables one of whom openly admitted to this newspaper that he was as oblivious to the reason for the eviction decision as the vendors were.

 Faces of frustration: Three of the four vendors with whom Stabroek Business spoke on Tuesday evening along with Vendors Union President Eon Andrews.
Faces of frustration: Three of the four vendors with whom Stabroek Business spoke on Tuesday evening along with Vendors Union President Eon Andrews.

When we had raised the issue of sanitation as the likely reason for the eviction order the vendors responded in unison, rejecting the validity of any such charge. They said, instead, that it was the municipality that had been delinquent. An arrangement between them had resulted in Puran’s Waste Disposal Service masking a dumpster available for depositing of trading waste. It was agreed that the Council would foot the bill and after it had reneged on that responsibility the company had removed the receptacle. In another instance, the women said, the vendors had, amongst them, pooled upward of $100,000 to have the drains cleaned by municipal employees.

All four of the women who had come to the Stabroek News’ office on Tuesday were working mothers. Among them they had four school-age children so that the show of authority that had been visited upon them by City Hall could not have come at a worse time. Some of the women were fretting about the coincidence between the City’s edict and the reopening of school and about the dislocation of their budgetary arrangements at a time when their utility bills were due.

There is an incongruity between the extent of the City’s revenue arising out of vending fees and the treatment to which vendors are subjected. President Granger has already pronounced on the need for vendors to be accommodated. One gets the impression that City Hall might not be listening or that the people who control the municipality are simply too preoccupied with the notion that they ‘own’ the city. Except central government disabuses them of that idea and insists on a return to a regime that treats the vendors with a degree of dignity while enforcing the municipal by-laws, what is now seen as a kind of pinprick provocation can result in a confrontation. This is not a matter to which central government can respond by simply sitting on its hands.

After Deputy Mayor Sherod Duncan (who was acting for the Mayor at the time of the eviction incident) had returned a call to the Stabroek News and had said his piece the drama assumed a decidedly quixotic appearance. Duncan said that as Acting Mayor he had had no inkling of what was to happen on Tuesday afternoon nor could he shed any light on a likely reason for the eviction of the vendors. The sheer helplessness of Georgetown’s acting First Citizen in the midst of an important emergency graphically underscores the dysfunctional condition into which City Hall is sinking.

The women with whom the Stabroek Business spoke will not discuss the issue of corrupt practices and shakedowns leveled against municipal officials. There is, however, every likelihood that an understanding of sorts exists between the vendors and constables who do municipal market duties. The problem lies in making a clear determination as to where generosity and benevolence stops and where shakedowns and racketeering begin.

Word had reached the Stabroek Business that there had been other vendor eviction exercises happening around Georgetown on the same day. We talked about that for a while but the vendors, by now, were beginning to become anxious about their unsold goods, some of which had been left unattended near the perimeter areas of the trading space.

The President of the newly formed Guyana Market Vendors Union Eon Andrews had sat in at the meeting. His was more-or-less a solidarity presence since the Union is only now beginning to recruit members. There was talk of a possible demonstration outside City Hall on Wednesday but nothing concrete had materialized up to when the four vendors left the Stabroek News’ office. Before they left one of them wondered aloud as to when the embargo on trading on the cordoned off stretch of Robb street might be lifted. No one seemed to have the faintest idea as to when that might be. That, in a sense, underscored the uncomfortable stranglehold which City Hall has on trading in the capital and just why vending in the city would appear to be under mortal threat.

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