What Bangkok’s crackdown tells us about the multiple roles of street vendors everywhere

The Thai capital’s attempt to ban the city’s popular food vendors prompted international outrage. But the most significant effects are being felt locally.
A food vendor plies a major tourist hub in Bangkok in 2015. This year, the city's authorities undertook a wide-ranging attempt to ban the popular sellers. (Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock)

Early this year, international media began reporting that Bangkok’s famous street vendors were to become a thing of the past, following a statement by an adviser to the governor that such sellers throughout the city would be removed within four months.

The announcement appeared to escalate the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority’s campaign to strongly reduce the number of street vendors, a push that had gone forward under the motto “Return the footpath to pedestrians.” Since 2014, following Thailand’s most recent military coup, hundreds of designated vending areas have been removed in Bangkok and tens of thousands of vendors evicted. Authorities have cited complaints about sidewalk obstruction and congestion from local residents and businesses as justification for the removals, but also the need to make the city presentable to tourists and investors, as described by the BMA’s adviser charged with executing the plan.

The campaign aligns with other ongoing efforts to “bring order” in the city — for instance, by demolishing homes and businesses along a central stretch of the Chao Praya River to make way for a controversial promenade. Projects such as these mirror the global aspiration among urban centres to become “global cities”, often at the expense of locals, particularly the working class.

Ironically, the announcement prompted a fierce global backlash, with international media outlets and food bloggers worldwide jeering the decision and highlighting the cultural loss to the popular tourist destination.

[See: Street food vendors fight for their place in India’s urban future]

This negative attention had an effect. A few days later, a spokesperson for the municipal authority said the ban would not affect the tourist hotspots of Yaowarat (Chinatown) and Khao San Road. Rather, these areas would undergo an “upgrade” to improve hygiene and orderliness. The city since has announced plans to develop new markets in these areas, although observers are sceptical about the extent to which they will resemble authentic street vending or incorporate original vendors.

However, the spirit of the announcement — to strongly reduce the number of street vendors in almost every other part of the city — has not been retracted.

3 lessons

The incident highlights the power of Bangkok’s street vendors as a cultural, “foodie” and tourism icon that helps attract well over 10 million tourists to Thailand’s capital each year. Tourism is big business — and big business gets the attention of the Thai government, as it does in many countries.

But let’s be clear: Street vending is much more than that. Urbanists, local governments and planners need to look beyond food connoisseurs to understand the multiple critical roles that vendors play in the urban socioeconomic system.

[See: Using Minecraft to engage the public and plan better public spaces]

Several recent studies on vendors in Bangkok reveal key lessons in this regard. While these lessons are specific to Bangkok, the city and its current crackdown provide a concise case study for similar policies affecting public space and informality around the world.

Lesson 1: Street vendors play a structural role in Bangkok’s economy and food system, providing affordable services for formal and informal workers alike.

Integrated into Bangkok’s business districts, street food vendors provide services for office workers, government employees and students at formal offices and institutions, as well as for the working poor generally surviving on low or unstable income. A study last year by Professor Narumol Nirathron at Thammasat University surveyed 200 local consumers, including students, office workers, day workers and government employees in four of the city’s central districts. Her data shows that:

  • 87 percent purchase food or other items from street vendors.
  • 65 percent purchase from vendors three times or more per week, and nearly 27 percent purchase every day.
  • Consumers cite convenience, price, product quality and variety — for instance, freshness and flavour — as the main reasons they are buying from street vendors.
  • Of those who purchase from vendors every day, more than 60 percent make less than THB 9,000 (USD 280) per month, demonstrating a vital dependence on street vending among Bangkok’s less-privileged residents.

Nirathron’s study also provides a price comparison of frequently purchased food items from street vendors and a mall food court, the next-cheapest option for freshly cooked food in many central city areas. Based on her data, food court items cost on average USD 0.5 more per purchase than the same items purchased from a vendor.

For employees earning the minimum wage of USD 9 per day (or for informal workers earning below the minimum wage), this could represent a significant increase in the cost of living. In this way, the loss of street food could create considerable pressure on city wages. An ongoing study by researchers from Thammasat University and WIEGO seeks to estimate the change in food expenditure for consumers of different income levels, should vendors disappear from city streets.

[See: The New Urban Agenda must prompt planners to recognize informal labour]

This reliance on street food is not specific to Bangkok. The 2017 Global Food Policy Report highlights the central role played by the informal economy in supplying African cities with accessible, affordable food. Likewise, the Food and Agriculture Organization has long recognized the importance of informal vendors’ contributions to food security worldwide.

Lesson 2: Street vending is an income generator and job creator, particularly for women, older people and those with lower education levels.

Although there is no precise figure on the number of street vendors currently operating in Bangkok, estimates range from roughly 100,000 to well over 300,000. Among 400 vendors in four districts, Nirathron’s 2016 study finds that:

  • More than 70 percent of vendors are women.
  • More than 70 percent of vendors are over age 40.
  • More than 40 percent have finished only primary education.
  • Nearly 50 percent have been working as vendors for more than 10 years.
  • 89 percent say that earnings from vending make up their primary household income — and a quarter support four or more dependents.

The research demonstrates that vending serves an important livelihood function, particularly for low-educated women and older workers, as well as for their households. Yet policies toward street vendors and urban public space in Bangkok and elsewhere fail to account for the deleterious impacts of evictions on the hundreds of thousands of households that rely on street vending as their primary source of income.

[See: What African cities could learn from Thailand’s street food culture]

A forthcoming study by WIEGO and HomeNet Thailand finds that Bangkok vendors recently moved from their location on the main road were suffering considerable economic loss, with concerns about managing daily and longer-term expenses in the absence of this income. The campaign will have particularly devastating impacts at a time when the economy is still suffering from slow growth.

Bangkok’s street food vendors have played a particularly important role for local communities, as seen here in the city’s Chinatown area in 2010. (AJP/Shutterstock)

Bangkok is not the only city where more families will be pushed further into poverty just as national governments agree to end poverty in all its forms — the key goal of the new Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, cities worldwide justify street vendor evictions by promoting roofed markets as an alternative. Yet there is widespread evidence that relocations to off-street markets tend to benefit only the better-off vendors.

Very few studies directly compare the earnings and working conditions of street vendors and market traders. However, a recent study from Peru shows that on average, women market traders earn less than women street vendors and also are less likely to have health insurance.

3. Street vendors make valuable contributions to urban space.

Despite insistence by proponents of the Bangkok Municipal Authority’s clearance campaign that vendors impede pedestrian foot traffic, a perception study by the Urban Design and Development institution finds that vendors are among the lowest on pedestrians’ list of sidewalk obstacles.

According to that study, more pedestrians cited inappropriate infrastructure, advertisement banners and poor condition of pavements as obstacles to comfortably using the city’s walkways. Rather, the close presence of diverse dry goods, prepared food and groceries typically makes residents more likely to walk down their street rather than drive to a food court or market.

[See: What Mexico City learned by devoting an office to designing public spaces]

Interviews by WIEGO and HomeNet with vendors highlighted another critical role as “eyes and ears” or “watchdogs” on Bangkok’s streets. The vendors see their presence as a deterrent to petty thieves or potentially more-dangerous crimes.

Indeed, another recent study suggests that the area around Tha Chang in Bangkok’s historic heart experiences more conflict and has become less safe for pedestrians since the removal of organized vending. It’s a lesson well known by New Yorkers, whose street vendors foiled a 2010 bomb plot in the city’s iconic tourist centre, Times Square — yet still operate under a hopelessly complicated and hostile regulatory environment.

Looming problem

It would be hard to overstate the significance of Bangkok street food from a culinary perspective, as some of the world’s finest chefs and travel experts have passionately argued. Yet the city’s street vendors are not just a quaint amenity for globetrotting Western tourists. They are essential economic agents who continuously shape — and support — the city’s streets, households and communities. These contributions are increasingly recognized by residents and keen observers of Bangkok, as exemplified by the new “Beyond Food” initiative.

What, then, might they aspire to do in the midst of the current crackdown? One place to look for inspiration is the New Urban Agenda, whose implementation will rely on participatory processes that meaningfully include the urban working poor. This is echoed by two components of SDG 11, the cities-focused goal: Target 11.3 and Indicator 11.3.2, which encourage cities to operate regular, democratic engagements with civil society to participate in urban planning.

[See: Urban planning — linchpin for sustainable urban development?]

Another is the recent Recommendation No. 204 of the International Labour Organization, which calls for a gradual approach to formalization that protects existing livelihoods. Such protection is essential. As one participant in the WIEGO/HomeNet Thailand study said: “For us, there is only one problem: a place to sell. We cannot stop selling, otherwise we will not have any money.”

Without protection, the clearance campaign in Bangkok raises some difficult questions that policymakers have yet to answer: Will companies and government agencies need to increase wages of their employers, who can no longer purchase cheap and nutritious meals from vendors? Will security forces need to be increased in order to replace the “eyes on the street” provided by vendors? And what jobs will be created for those vendors displaced from their previously stable (if modest) livelihoods, especially during a time of slow economic growth in Thailand?

As the Economist magazine has argued, Bangkok’s problems will grow much larger than the inconveniences associated with street trade if the city’s rule-makers don’t find a way to think harder about vendors’ role in the city’s vibrant fabric. WIEGO’s global research likewise shows that rather than criminalizing street trade, cities will benefit most by capitalizing on their ability to create employment, to provide affordable meals and consumer goods, and to contribute to government revenue. 

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Sarah Reed

Sarah Reed is the coordinator of WIEGO’s Focal City Project in Bangkok and foreign expert in the faculty of social administration at Thammasat University.

Sally Roever

Sally Roever is the director of WIEGO’s Urban Policies Programme.

Narumol Nirathron

Narumol Nirathron is an associate professor in the faculty of social administration at Thammasat University in Bangkok.