Plights and perils of Tunisian street vendors

The new Tunisian parliament ought to allow unlicensed vendors become legal.

Black market vendors say they have no alternative but to earn a living by any means possible [Rabii Kalboussi]

Tunis, Tunisia As Tunisians get ready to go to the polls for the country’s first ever democratic parliamentary elections on October 26, salesman Bassam Gazbar “could care less who is going to be in the government. It doesn’t make a difference to us”.

He stood up and lit a cigarette in front of his stand in La Passage, an area that hosts an unlicensed market in downtown Tunis. With sellers offering telephones, jewellery, clothing and other goods, the market in La Passage is busy and a steady stream of customers gravitate to the stands.

Bagging scarves for a pair of tourists, Gazbar defended his unlicensed business. “We don’t pay taxes, but we pay the police almost every day,” the 29-year-old father of two told Al Jazeera.

Although police officers promise him freedom to sell his goods, most of which are smuggled from abroad, without interference, Gazbar says around 700 dinars ($390) worth of products were confiscated when police raided the area earlier this week.

“I know that I am working in a parallel economy and that it’s not good for the country, but I have to make a living and feed my kids,” he explained, adding that he “has no experience or skills other than selling. Today I am selling scarves, but tomorrow it might be telephones.”

“If they [smugglers] brought me aeroplanes, I’d sell those, too,” he joked. 

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Gazbar’s business is no exception. With the economy weakened, a booming black market has grown since the 2011 revolution ousted US-backed strongman President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Though the country rid itself of autocratic rule, the post-revolutionary transitional period has brought about uncertainty, political violence, and economic instability.

With unemployment at more than 15 percent, black market vendors say they have no alternatives but to earn a living by any means possible.

According to Ummezine Khelifa, a member of the left-leaning Ettakatol party (also known as the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties) and a legislative candidate in the country’s capital, the economy will be the primary task for the 217-seat parliament, the National Assembly.

“Employment has to improve, especially youth employment,” she told Al Jazeera, “and one of the main issues related to improving the economy is tackling corruption in Tunisian institutions”.

Though national security and human rights remain key issues to voters, a new Pew Research poll found that economic stability is one of the highest priorities for Tunisians.

A lot of salesman lost their income after the revolution due to the instability and chaos. Regulations were no longer clear. I don't pay taxes here, true, but it's not like I'm making great money either.

by - Mohamed Ayari, unlicensed salesman

Eighty-eight percent of those polled describe the economy as “bad” and 73 percent “express the opinion that a strong economy is more important [than democratic governance]”.

Slim Chaker, who is responsible for economic and social affairs within the secular party Nidaa Tounes, argued that dealing with the black market economy requires developing peripheral regions of the country that have been historically neglected.

“Smuggling goods thrives in areas on Tunisia’s borders with Libya and Algeria,” he told Al Jazeera. “Developing the economies of those areas that are far from the capital, on the borders is essential for preventing this.”

Although Pew Research found that most Tunisians, despite their dissatisfaction with the present economic state, are “optimistic that the economy will turn around soon – 56 percent expect it to improve in the next year”.

Hassan Zargouini, a consultant to the World Bank and founder of Sigma Conseil, an economic research firm, warns that not tackling the growing black market will undermine efforts to turn the national economy around.

Because the products are smuggled through the borders and not subjected to taxation or quality inspection, the black market harms the national economy, public health and security, according to Zargouini.

“Most importantly, there is a shortage of income tax in Tunisia. During this difficult economic period, the state needs to collect the maximum amount of taxes possible,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he estimates around 25 percent of all fuel transactions take place on the black market.

“For the new government that will be elected, this is a top priority,” he explained. “That is why the issue is high on the programmes of every party running in the legislative elections.” 

Mohammed Zaoui, who owns a computer business located just a hundred metres from La Passage’s market, told Al Jazeera: “I pay taxes, and I don’t appreciate that people can just set up stands on the corners and don’t have to pay taxes.”

A father of three, the 42-year-old businessman worked away fixing a CD-Rom on a laptop while he explained that unlicensed business “harm legitimate businesses in Tunisia, and it attracts thieves and disrespectful people to the area”.

“I’m still not sure who I’ll vote for, but I hope whoever takes control of the government after the elections will do something about this problem,” he added. “This black market economy has to be ended. It’s been more than three years since the revolution, and it’s only gotten worse.”

Yet Mohamed Ayari, a 52-year-old with an unlicensed produce stand near the prominent Habib Bourguiba Avenue, argued that permits are expensive and hard to come by.

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“The municipality [in Tunis] isn’t giving us permits to set up stands in the markets right now,” he said, bagging vegetables for customers. “I used to have a registered produce stand at the Lafayette Market, but a millionaire bought the land and built a mall on top of it.”

“A lot of salesman lost their income after the revolution due to the instability and chaos,” he said. “Regulations were no longer clear. I don’t pay taxes here, true, but it’s not like I’m making great money either.” Though black market vendors’ political opinions are as varied as the rest of the populace, Ayari said he plans on voting for Nidaa Tounes because “they can fix the economy”.

“I’d like the economy to improve and the regulations to be simplified so I can make my business legitimate,” he said. “I want to pay taxes and run it respectably.”

Allowing unlicensed vendors an opportunity to become legal is exactly what economist Zargouini says the next parliament ought to do.  

“There is no miracle solution,” Zargouini concluded. “Six governments in less than four years haven’t been able to fix it … but the main challenge now is to provide people relying on the informal economy with a path towards becoming legal gradually and without using force.”

The phenomenon of street vendors remains the human face of socio-economic ills, notably poverty. For them all that matters is how to survive as the state’s alternatives are woefully insufficient.

Many of them do not believe in the rosy promises distributed by political parties, whose sole goals are how to win in these elections.

Their plight does not feature in any political party’s programme, though the issue of taking them off the streets remains everybody’s constituency.

Follow Patrick O. Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera