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‘More understanding, more awareness, more dignity!’

Trade Unions
Street vendor Aziz

Street vendor Aziz is spokesperson for the union. © OTOXO Productions

Clelia Goodchild talks to members of the first union in Europe for illegal street vendors about what they want. 

In August 2015, the sudden and unexpected death of Mor Sylla, an illegal Senegalese street vendor, sent a shockwave of sorrow and anger through the street-vendor community of Barcelona. Mainstream media declared the circumstances of his death to be unclear: the police had entered Mor’s home and he had died falling off his balcony. For the illegal street vendors, victims of police brutality and racism ever since their arrival in Barcelona, it was the final straw. The community gathered strength and decided to form the first union of illegal street vendors in Europe. The Sindicato popular de vendedores ambulantes de Barcelona (Popular Union of Street Vendors of Barcelona) was born, demanding more understanding, more awareness, more dignity. This is when independent film production OTOXO Productions and its 12 newly recruited international filmmakers, including myself, decided to make a documentary to capture this historical event and allow their voice to be amplified.

We had, of course, noticed the vendors before. How could one not? In the busiest streets of Barcelona, they lay out their groundsheets and set up their goods, bought – not stolen – the day before. As Aziz, street vendor and spokesperson for the Sindicato popular de vendedores ambulantes de Barcelona, explained: ‘I never wanted to sell on the street. For me, it’s not dignified. But you need to live here for three years in order to work, and during these three years you have to eat. If we are selling in the street it’s because we don’t have another option... it’s all we have.’

We met Aziz, who was to become one of the main characters of our documentary ‘El peso de la manta’ (‘The Weight of the Sheet’), in December 2015. He took a few of us, cameraless, with him as he went to sell on the street, introducing us to his colleagues and providing us with a first-hand insight into the daily struggle of an illegal street vendor.

Constantly on the lookout for the police, unable to stay put more than 10 minutes, we witnessed a real game of cat and mouse between the police and the vendors. In the following weeks, we came back. Again. And again. And again. Little by little, we started getting to know some of the vendors more personally. We met Seni, who came from Senegal looking for work over 10 years ago and hasn’t seen his two young sons since. He works tirelessly to send financial help home every month. We also met Lamine, a 26-year-old Senegalese and the union’s youngest spokesperson. Discussions gradually moved beyond the union to their past, their stories, their hopes and dreams.

We eventually started filming, making us the first filmmakers to make a documentary on the street-vendor community of Barcelona. It was an opportunity to deconstruct myths and reveal their humanity.

Street selling is one of the most visible of the illegal activities migrants are forced to turn to. Yet the vendors, a familiar sight in so many European capitals, are ultra-marginalized. Ironically, these individuals, ever-so present, do not have a say in society or in any political decisions made about them. Unionization was a powerful reaction to this state of exclusion: ‘We’ve created the union to counter discrimination, racism and for people to know we are not what they say we are,’ said Lamine.

For months, we followed Aziz, Seni and Lamine in their personal struggles and the union’s fight for recognition and change. The union was unprepared and untrained, and faced the difficulties one would expect for an inexperienced union, in addition to the illegality and precarity of its members. But lack of communication and organization, negative press and false promises did not stop them. Helped by local support groups Tras la Manta and El espacio del Inmigrante, they organized demonstrations, gave talks, addressed the government and police forces, and challenged press and public opinion with a new voice.

This union’s determination to exist and its persistence are crucial. The issues it raises resonate all over Europe. In a world undergoing an explosive refugee crisis, where our borders are being redefined and statelessness is a burning issue, the act of unionizing is a firm ‘no’ to the idea that those who are illegal must remain voiceless. The Sindicato popular de vendedores ambulantes is a much-needed example of strength, perseverance and hope. Through ‘El peso de la manta’, we hope their voice can reach other migrant communities across Europe and inspire many others to challenge their condition.

Poster for El peso de la mantaClelia Goodchild, cleliagoodchild.com

More information on ‘El peso de la manta’: Watch our trailer, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We are in the process of submitting ‘El peso de la manta’ to festivals worldwide, and will soon be launching a Crowdfunding campaign to support its distribution. Please keep an eye open and help us make sure the Sindicato Polular de Vendedores Ambulantes get their voice heard and can encourage other similar initiatives around the globe! For any queries, please contact [email protected]

Look out for the September 2016 issue of New Internationalist magazine exploring possibilities for a 21st-century revival of organized workers’ movements around the world: Trade Unions – rebuild, renew, resist

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