Gaspar Garcia Human Rights Centre in São Paulo defend right to work for 5,000 people, with Christian Aid and European Union support.
Life in the metropolis
São Paulo is the biggest city in Latin America. Here, the mega-rich and the desperately poor live side-by-side. Life is expensive - and getting more so as the city looks forward to the World Cup in 2014.
More than 138,000 people in São Paulo rely on selling goods in the street to make a living – from those with established market stalls to those who roam the streets selling cold drinks and snacks to make a few reais.
Of these tens of thousands of street vendors, only about 5,137 have licences.
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Since 2009, street vendors have been finding it harder to get a licence, and there has been a crackdown on operating without one. In May 2012 every single licence was revoked by the office of the former mayor, with no legitimate reason given.
Some blame it on the city authorities wanting to clear the streets ahead of the World Cup and increase house prices in central areas.
Others believe it’s a result of pressure by big business, wanting to force consumers into their stores by preventing them from shopping in the markets.
Whatever the intention, the result was to deprive thousands of São Paulo’s most precariously surviving residents of any legal means of feeding their families.
One of the leaders of the street vendors was Vania Maia, mother of four and grandmother of five. She rises at four in the morning in order to get to the central market area of Brás to open her clothes stall at six.
She doesn’t get home again until nine at night, when she has to cook food for her family’s evening meal and for the next day.
She says: ‘It’s hard to find a job in São Paulo – especially if you’re over 40 with a low level of literacy and education. In order to survive, we have to work on the streets.’
Vania has been living like this for 32 years, putting food on her family’s table legally and decently.
In 2012, the mayor’s office revoked her licence to work, without any explanation. She suffered police violence and repression when she tried to open her stall.
Refusing to be beaten, Vania organised an association of street vendors in her area. Through this she got involved with Christian Aid partner Gaspar Garcia Human Rights Centre, a São Paulo organisation founded in 1988 that was also fighting for the street vendors’ right to work.
Gaspar Garcia supports workers
With support from Christian Aid and the European Union, Gaspar Garcia helped the street vendors to know about their rights, to network with other excluded groups and to challenge the mayor’s decision, providing legal advice and representation to launch a public lawsuit.
They also helped to keep up the pressure while the lawsuit was proceeding by supporting the street vendors’ weekly peaceful demonstrations at the mayor’s office.
When the street vendors’ lawsuit came to be heard, 22 out of 23 judges voted in their favour.
All 5,137 licences that had been revoked in 2012 were reinstated immediately, including Vania’s.
She says: ‘I am very grateful to Gaspar Garcia because they helped us in our fight and enabled us to continue in this fight. I want the vendors here to be organised and for us to be treated as workers, not garbage.’
The struggle goes on
Due to the way the case was dealt with, the part of the suit relating to vendors who lost their licences before 2012 is still open.
However, last year’s court victory is a cause for hope for all street vendors.
In the words of Gaspar Garcia project coordinator Luciana Itikawa: ‘Even though not all licences were reinstated, it was successful because it showed street vendors that their actions could have an impact on the political process.’
Gaspar Garcia, Christian Aid and the EU continue to stand beside São Paulo’s street vendors, protecting the licences of those who have them, and fighting for legality for those who don’t.
As Vania says: ‘And that’s why we love Gaspar Garcia, because they gained us the right to work.’