Human Flower Project
Flower Vendors: Keeping It Informal
It’s happened in San Antonio and San Francisco, and now in Istanbul; authorities are trying to get flower vendors to buy in and make their work official.
A boy makes flower garlands to sell on the street in Hyderabad, India
Photo: Sandy Ao
Within the heart of every self-proclaimed progressive, a dictator is lurking:
“You must not be poor. You WILL be clean and happy!”
For progressives, nothing’s crazier or more intolerable than people who won’t be “bettered.“ But the record shows that, despite 150 years of social science and persuasion, there are plenty of folks who don’t want to sign up for the program.
In the realm of commerce, this recalcitrance is called “the informal economy.” For obvious reasons, it includes the black market, but most of its participants are selling things that are perfectly legal – like flowers. They’re just operating outside the reach of officialdom and regulation.
Anybody who’s ever been paid in cash (or, alternatively, had to fill out pages of forms and file the pounds of paper that the “formal economy” demands) knows there are advantages to marginality. But there are disadvantages, too. Ask any undocumented worker who’s been cheated out of a day’s pay.
A flower vendor
in Nebaj, Guatemala
Across the world, the untold thousands (millions?) of flower vendors examplify “informal” business practices, meaning, for starters, they wouldn’t use such terminology. For that, we must go to the World Bank:
“The informal economy is largely characterised by:
– Low entry requirements in terms of capital and professional qualifications.
– A small scale of operations
– Skills often acquired outside of formal education.
– Labour-intensive methods of production and adapted technology.
Labour relations – where they exist – are based mostly on casual employment, kinship or personal and social relations rather than contractual arrangements with formal guarantees.”
So children (with no “professional qualifications”) sell flowers to passing motorists in Dhaka. Seasonal vendors rely on farmer friends at the outskirts of San Antonio (“personal and social relations”) to supply the marigolds for El Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. Operations can be very, VERY “small scale” – we think of a man in Sevilla, Spain, selling small and rapidly browning gardenias from a plastic bucket…
Photo: Sandy Ao
One distinguishing feature that the World Bank failed to mention is that workers in the informal economy are periodically hassled by the authorities to join in, pay, up, and get with the program. We read just today, for example, that the officials in Istanbul, Turkey, awarded a contract to Birikim Consultant Firm to build kiosks throughout the city that flowers sellers might rent. The city said the kiosks would be constructed at a considerable distance from existing flower stalls and that sellers would then be free either to keep on at their present locations or move to the new spots to sell.
Sevim Songun’s intriguing article for the Hurriyet Daily News reports that “some 15 kiosks were recently set up near where Roma people sell flowers.” The vendors have complained they’re being pressured to move, and they choose not to. In part, they say, because in renting the kiosks they will have to commit to regular (and long) hours and fixed prices. Bargaining room, and sometimes barter, are characteristic of the informal economy, too, as are flexible schedules.
“I am selling flowers to students,” said Emine Çetinbaşlar, one vendor. “Sometimes they do not have enough money, and I can prepare flowers for them for two Turkish Liras. Sometimes they do not have any money, and I still give them flowers, and they pay me whenever they get the money,” she told Songun.
There are an estimated 400 flower stalls in Istanbul, most of them
operated by Roma
Photo: Mehveş Konuk, for Hürriyet Daily News
According to the head of one flower seller’s group, some company officials “invited Roma flower-sellers” to consider the spiffier sales outlets, telling them “the female vendors would have to wear miniskirts and put on make-up if they wanted to work at the new kiosks.” Whether or not that requirement is true, it’s a hilarious fable of how captains of the formal economy struggle to get everybody on board and how, in the absence of other kinds of power, those in the informal economy use their wiles to struggle back.
“The Istanbul municipality told the Daily News in a written statement that the street vendors were informed about the practices in the new kiosks, which include a dress code of black pants, a white T-shirt and an apron for the female sellers. ‘Wearing make-up is not compulsory, but the vendors are told it would be more suitable if they look clean, elegant and well-groomed,’ said the statement, adding that the renters should pay attention to the cleanliness of their kiosks as well.”
What’s that sound we hear? It’s the progressives’ battle cry: Get clean! Get ”elegant”! And, hey, get grateful! Can you see, we’re trying to help!