Hazards of ‘Petty Trade’ in Asia


A huge low-income working population in Asia is involved in an economic activity called petty trading. It is a common sight in many Asian cities — the widespread proliferation of petty traders, hawking items from garden produce to cheap consumer goods. These small-scale merchants have come from the unemployed, the displaced, and the impoverished sections of the society.A larger number of women in all countries of Asia have engaged in this kind of trading occupation for smoothing and supplementing their incomes.

The lives of petty trading workers are full of uncertainties with their daily incomes shrinking and in sometimes, with heavy loss of invested money due to decrease in sales of their goods like food items, fruits, petty consumer goods, etc. Among the petty traders, hawkers are frequently harassed by police authorities. They are the vendors selling the items like handicrafts or food items, stationary or mobile, on the roadsides, by attracting the customers with loud street cries and bantering with customers to ensure the sales. Often, they would be driven out of their selling spaces, such as roadsides, platforms, etc., by police and law enforcement officials, citing the reason that hawkers are the nuisance for the people, moving along the city-roads.

The number of workers in petty trade occupations is rapidly increasing in Asian countries, due to the growing scarcity of secure jobs in organized industries in the neoliberal era. The persisting economic stagnation in Asia with spiraling inflation has been wiping out waged employment opportunities. The restructuring of Asian economies, under the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, have slashed public sector employment, and cuts in subsidies on food and other requisites of the poor, devaluation of the local currencies, etc., have made it difficult for for the people to subsist without holding multiple occupations, including petty trading. The precarious living conditions of workers are all the offshoots of the neoliberal policies of the ruling elites.Increasing urbanization is also changing the job patterns, driving many workers across Asia to the insecure jobs like petty trading.

Most of the petty traders and other such workers in the informal field of labor are actually the thrown-outs from the formal job markets, in the course of the process of corporate capital accumulation. The growing rural distress is also connected to the increase in the number of urban petty traders. Many of them migrated to cities due to lack of employment opportunities in the rural agriculture.

Currently, one of the important reasons for the loss of employment in agriculture in the Southeast Asian countries, like Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia etc., is land grabbing.land grabbing is actually a large-scale acquisition of more than 200 hectares or more by the corporate investors ,either foreign or domestic or the government entities through buying, leasing or accessing land for the industrial or business or real estate purposes.

These ongoing acquisitions are not only causing landlessness and joblessness among rural population, but also undermining food security in these countries.The rural unemployed were migrating to cities and are forced to involve in some kind of self-employment, and many would choose petty trading which requires very little initial investment and few skills.

This commonest form of work in India was accounting for more than 53% of the workforce. The self-employment like petty trading is nothing but the ‘self-exploitation’, since petty trading is one of the very few survival strategies available for the working people, in the context of corporate-driven neoliberalism.

Obviously, Informalization in employment is the global phenomenon and the people choose the informal jobs, to alleviate poverty. So, organizing petty traders is a challenging task for the trade unions. The workers in the petty trading are disenfranchised in labour law.They could not go to court against the employer, because they cannot identify a single employer. International Labour Organization (ILO), has already developed the concept of “decent work” – involving rights to work, and, at work, with social security. However, the hard working population of petty traders are given very less attention. The Left trade unions in India and in many South Asian countries are trying their best to mobilize and conduct agitations for the welfare of petty traders. Demand for access of institutional credit, for petty producers and traders is important since many depend upon private money lenders for their financial need.

But attitude of the governmental authorities on the plight of petty traders was very much apathetic and sometimes brutal with intimidating and harassing the workers including female workers. However, pressurizing the governments to provide social and job security for petty trading and building the peoples movement on such humanitarian demands, is an important task before the Asian Left.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2017


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