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Street Work: Dynamics and Trajectories of Collective Organizing

Ilda Lindell


Street workers may engage in multiple forms of agency. This paper conceives of such forms in terms of a continuum where some forms may evolve into others, dissolve or revert to previous ones. Closer attention is given to the dynamics and trajectories of street workers’ organizations, which vary widely and are poorly understood. In particular, the paper addresses the prospects for and limitations of transformative and sustained collective organization among street workers. Both external and internal processes influencing the dynamics of street workers’ organizations are examined, such as the economic and political context of associations, the nature of their relations with political elites, the governing powers of associations, the nature of their leadership, and who they represent and exclude. This paper enquires into what accounts for demobilization, regression and political disengagement. It also explores whether participation in wider associative networks and collaborations can help overcome some of the fragilities of street workers’ associations, promote their sustainability and broaden their visions. The discussion draws upon literature addressing collective organizing among street workers in a wide range of urban contexts in Africa and the global South.

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This paper was written in the framework of a research project, titled “The demise of the informal economy? Economic growth and street work in urban Africa”, and funded by The Swedish Research Council (grant number 2015-03474). The author also wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers for their useful comments on the paper.


1Street work has become a pervasive feature of cities in the global South and is the source of livelihoods for a growing part of urban populations (Little et al. 2013, Cross and Morales 2013). Street workers engage in a variety of individual and collective practices as a means to cope with the multiple challenges of working on the street. While their individual efforts and networks are a source of income and well-being, their organization into durable groups and associations is an important condition for contesting political marginalization, gaining political recognition and for protecting access to resources in the city. Collective organization among street workers thus has a potential role to play in the creation of more just urban futures. Assessing the potential of these associations to fulfill this role requires a consideration of a range of processes shaping the dynamics and trajectories of street workers’ organizations. These dynamics and trajectories vary widely and are poorly understood particularly in the African context. In some cases, street workers’ organizations have grown and linked up with other organizations, networks and agendas. In other cases, they remain highly fragmented, localized and sutured around narrow concerns. Sometimes, after an initial phase of successful mobilization, associations fall into regression or subside into less visible forms of operation. In yet other cases, individual action prevails and collective organization does not materialize.

2This paper addresses the prospects for and limitations of transformative and sustained collective organization and representation among street workers. It reflects upon the role of a number of internal and external processes influencing the dynamics of street workers’ organizations. Questions addressed include: Do street workers’ associations have the potential to contribute to progressive social and political transformation? To what extent are associations able to represent the concerns and aspirations of street workers? What accounts for demobilization, regression and political disengagement? Can collaborations with other organizations help overcome some of the fragilities of street workers’ associations, promote their sustainability and broaden their visions? These questions have relevance for a broad range of geographical contexts where street work is widespread. The paper thus refers to the wider literature on street work but greater attention is given to urban African contexts. Collective organizing among street workers in Africa is much less studied than in other regions of the global South, perhaps because levels of street worker membership in associations in Africa have been considered to be generally lower (Skinner 2008) or because collective formations have had a lower profile and visibility. This landscape is however changing considerably, in the context of far-reaching social, economic and political transformations on the continent. This warrants closer attention to the dynamics of emerging organizing initiatives and configurations in urban Africa. The paper draws upon literature addressing collective organizing among street workers in a considerable number of cities and on the author’s own research on this topic. Street work refers, in this paper, to income-generating activities that involve the use or occupation of street or open urban spaces. The focus is on vending, both on the street and in unplanned markets.

3The paper begins with a discussion of the multiple and shifting forms of street workers’ agency and their temporal dimensions. Then, it examines a number of external and internal processes influencing the dynamics of street workers’ organizations and their capacity to represent their constituencies. This is followed by a discussion of emerging relationships between street workers’ associations and other organizations and of their engagement in wider transnational networks. The conclusion summarizes the paper and reflects upon the prospects for sustained and transformative collective organization among street workers in urban South contexts.

Multiple and non-fixed forms of agency

4The agency of street workers can take a range of different forms. Inspired by James Scott’s (1985, 1991) emphasis on individual daily acts as political practices in contexts where collective contestation is absent or risky, a share of research examines the significant implications of the individual daily acts of various subaltern groups. Asef Bayat (1997: 57) conceptualizes the politics of “informals” as a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary”, whereby they gradually and silently occupy physical spaces. Individual action dominates, he argues, because invisibility is a way of staying autonomous from the state and escaping its discipline. This perspective has informed other work foregrounding the “invisible” everyday resistance of street workers (see for example Kamete 2010). Some research highlights the crucial role played by social networks that urban dwellers build and nurture for various ends. Such networks have been shown to be indispensable for the livelihoods of vendors (Lourenco-Lindell 2002). Abdou Maliq Simone’s influential notion of “social infrastructures” refers to practices of reciprocity and ephemeral collaboration that characterize contemporary urban sociality more generally (2004, 2015). Such practices, he argues, are silent, “invisible” and dissimulated, which makes them effective in escaping scrutiny and control. A parallel strand of research examines more visible and enduring collective forms of agency: it focuses on associational life among people who depend on informality for survival, and gives it a central place in power struggles around informality (Lindell 2010a, Bénit-Gbaffou 2016, and Fernández-Kelly 2006 for Latin America). This research demonstrates how these actors are able to create organizations that often seek visibility and public engagement.

5Studies of the agency of informal actors focusing on one or another form of agency – individual, social networks or organizations – tend to rely on different assumptions about the political modalities and preferences of these actors (Lindell 2010b): some emphasize invisibility, ephemerality and disengagement from the State while others stress visibility, permanence and voice. Different manifestations of agency are thus treated as fixed and separate forms or even in opposition to one another; consequently, overlaps and movements between these different forms are seldom considered.

6The agency of the subaltern including street workers can be better conceptualized in terms of a broad spectrum or continuum of practices that includes: (a) individual everyday acts that cumulatively transform cities; (b) social networks, more or less diffuse, momentary or lasting, horizontal or hierarchical, that facilitate access to resources essential for income activities; (c) more structured collective forms such as associations, capable of expressing common objectives (Lindell 2010b). All of these practices can be seen as “political” albeit in different ways: individual practices are potentially “insurgent”, that is, transgressive and disruptive of a dominant political order and vision; while structured associations may negotiate and engage with the State in varied ways. In both cases however, the agency of the subaltern is not necessarily subversive of or autonomous from dominant powers (Roy 2011).

7As part of a broad spectrum, these different political practices, rather than being separate from each other, can coexist and overlap (Lindell 2010b). For example, individuals may engage simultaneously in work related associations and in heterogeneous networks of solidarity and exchange (Das and Randeria 2015). Moreover, in a continuum of forms of agency, certain forms may evolve into others, dissolve or revert to previous ones. This warrants attention to the temporal dimensions of agency forms, and how they change over time. Although certain forms may predominate in certain contexts or periods, they are not fixed. Rather, they can evolve in undetermined directions, between the visible and the invisible, the individual and the collective. The seemingly atomistic practices of street workers and their networks of everyday exchanges may provide an invisible infrastructure that may develop into more elaborate forms of political organization and public visibility (Scott 1991). This development, however, cannot be taken for granted and there are reasons to be wary towards linear assumptions about a necessary progression from individual practices to collective association. As will be discussed below, there are specific challenges to organizing street workers; there is reluctance to join associations in some contexts; and some associations are unable to sustain initial levels of mobilization and fall into decline. What is required then is the situated investigation of street workers’ perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of joining associations, of the opportunities and risks involved, and an analysis of the possible rationalities that can lead these actors to opt for practices of visibility or invisibility. The assumption here is that the political practices of street workers are influenced by the social, political, and cultural context. The specific forms and contours of their agency in a particular geographical and temporal context is not predetermined, but rather an empirical question.

8The paper now turns to a discussion of some of the processes influencing the trajectories of street workers’ associations, with a view to reflect upon the prospects and limitations of a sustainable and transformative collective organization.

The context of collective organizing and political relations

9Significant challenges for organizing among street workers arise from the context in which they operate. The global spread of neoliberal policies advertised by global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank have impacted on street workers in diverse ways but generally contributed to an accelerated growth in their numbers, often in combination with rapid urban growth and migration (Skinner 2008, Lourenco-Lindell 2002). Despite a growing focus on “inclusive growth” and on promoting productivity in the informal economy rather than on taxing it (International Monetary Fund 2017a, b), exposure to international prices persists as a source of vulnerability. This, coupled with intensive competition among street workers, has resulted in low or irregular incomes for many, with women being overrepresented in the more precarious activities (Horn 2010, Cohen 2010). In conjunctures where rapid economic growth has taken place, such growth does not necessarily trickle down to the streets or does so highly unevenly. A variety of constraints may encumber even those activities that generate higher incomes (Chivangue 2014). Additionally, predatory relationships in some sectors of the street economy transfer the costs of a volatile market to the most vulnerable street workers, imprisoning many of them in low-income activities. The contexts in which many street workers operate are thus often characterized by deepening inequality and precarity, albeit their specific contours and manifestations vary between different places. Consequently, many associations struggle with a lack of resources (Lopes 2014, Meagher 2010, 2011), which may undermine effective and durable organizing.

10At the city level, the resurgence of ideals of urban modernity and the adoption of entrepreneurial forms of urban governance emphasizing city competitiveness tend to reconfigure cities in ways that often exclude street workers such as street vendors from profitable public spaces (Lindell 2018, Crossa 2009, Swansson 2007). There is a renewed emphasis on law enforcement and an increasing recurrence of evictions and relocations of vendors in a wide range of cities (Kamete 2012, Lindell and Ampaire 2018, Spire and Choplin 2018, Bromley and Mackie 2009, see also Roever and Skinner 2016 on a range of cities across the global South). Displacements potentially disrupt street vendors’ livelihoods, networks and existing associations (Omoegun et al. 2018). Yet, street vendors also resist such exclusionary interventions and policies, individually and/or collectively (Lindell 2018, Crossa 2009, Bromley and Mackie 2009, Steel et al. 2014, Cuvi 2016). Many associations emerge as a response to such hostile attitudes and become vehicles for the collective articulation of street vendors’ rights to public space, a key livelihood resource (War on Want et al. 2006, Lindell 2008). In Maputo, for example, a vendors association was formed in the late 1990s primarily to address local government threats of displacement. However, while some associations attain a measure of influence over time (see for example Roever and Skinner 2016 on SEWA in India), many vendor associations lack enough political clout (or autonomy) to effectively advance the interests of their members through formal governance channels (see Brown and Lyons 2010 on examples from Dar es Salaam, Dakar and Accra).

11The nature of relations between street workers’ associations and political elites is of great importance not only for what they can achieve but also for the dynamics of these associations. The “urban poor” often engage in heterogeneous networks and relations involving the non-poor (Das and Randeria 2015: 6, 12) and the same can be said of street workers and their associations. The relationships between street workers associations and elite groups are more complex and heterogeneous than is usually assumed, and vary considerably in space and time, between sectors and associations (Lindell 2010a, Fernández-Kelly 2006). While State actors often constitute a major source of insecurity for street workers as mentioned above, these relations are not always or exclusively antagonistic. Political elites and association leaders are in many contexts linked through informal political networks. In some cases, associations are able to get some benefits for their members through political patronage. This was the case, for example, of market associations led by influential traders in Cotonou, Benin (Prag 2010). In other cases, political elites regard street economies as vote banks (see Das and Randeria 2015: 5) and succeed in controlling associations. Indeed, associations may become vehicles for State strategies to penetrate and control the informal economy and its associations for economic and political ends. Sometimes, political capture by elites has reportedly weakened the leverage and political voice of informal constituencies (Meagher 2010, 2011). The following examples briefly illustrate the complex, contradictory and shifting relations between street workers associations and political elites, and their implications for associational dynamics and trajectories.

12In Maputo, the leaders of the vendors association would attempt to curb the hostilities of the municipal authorities by developing close relationships with high rank politicians (Lindell 2008). Consequently, in times of elections, associational representatives have campaigned in the markets in support of the ruling party. With time, relations with the municipal government improved and, in the last years, the association has managed to secure a significant amount of space in the city center for street vendors to operate, although this is seen as a temporary arrangement (interviews with street vendors and their leaders, 2018). These gains, however, have been at a cost of political autonomy. Furthermore, close relationships between association leaders and political elites have sometimes jeopardized the capacity of the association to properly defend its members in critical moments (for another example, see Lopes 2014 on market vendors in Luanda). While in some instances the association has been able to mobilize large numbers of vendors and avert unfavorable municipal actions, on other occasions, vendors and markets targeted for eviction have counted with modest associational support. The latest example occurred when an unplanned market was about to be demolished to make room for the construction of a large bridge in Maputo. The vendors became exasperated when the municipal authorities opposed the payment of compensation offered to them by the state company supervising the bridge construction. The association failed to defend the vendors, who would themselves negotiate a settlement with the involved powers (interviews with displaced market vendors, 2018).

13In Kampala, the vending sector has long been a field of intense political competition between the ruling party and the opposition in the context of multi-party politics. In the 2000s, the Kampala City Council (KCC) ruled by the opposition party, announced that unplanned city markets were to be lease out to and redeveloped by private investors. The President, in agreement with an umbrella association of market vendors, intervened to block this process and ordered that the redevelopment of the markets be assigned to vendors’ associations. The intervention was intended to undermine support for the opposition party and strengthen the influence of the President and his party in the markets. Within the markets, however, there were rivalries and conflicts between associations, reflecting the different positioning of their leaders in relation to different political factions and investors as well as a power struggle over the control of the markets (Lindell and Ampaire 2016, Monteith 2016). In 2011, the replacement of the KCC with the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) formally entrenched the power of central government over the governance of Kampala and greatly weakened the powers of locally elected officials (Goodfellow and Titeca 2012), although since then disputes between political factions would deepen rather than subside. The KCCA embarked on the systematic elimination of street vendors from the city center and on their relocation into “modern” markets. A street vendors association would actively lobby for the relocation of the vendors into new markets, a change that would negatively affect the conditions of their constituencies (Lindell and Ampaire 2018). This resonates with a few other studies uncovering the active role of vendors’ associations in governmental relocation programs aimed at putting an end to vending activities in public spaces (see Morange 2015 on Nairobi, Weng and Kim 2016 on Hsinchu city).

14The above cases illustrate how complex as well as unstable the relations between informal workers associations and political elites and the State can be (see also Das and Randeria 2015: 8). Political connections may generate some gains and protection but may also require compromises that can damage the legitimacy of association leaders in the eyes of the members. In addition, associations may be used as part of a political technology to manage the vast populations of street workers and render them governable. These relations and strategies have important implications for the dynamics of collective organizing among street workers. They may both contribute to the demobilization of association members (see Rodrigues and Bialoborska 2017) and discourage collective organization as explained below.

15Street workers may be reluctant to organize into associations for political and other reasons. The case of vendors in Cape Verde is worth mentioning in this respect. Frias (2014) explains that, despite various threats to their interests as a group, their adherence to and participation in associations has been low and short-lived. This, Frias argues, is explained both by local historical-cultural factors and by the fact that many traders see these associations as largely subordinate to the interests of political elites, and thus have little confidence in them. Therefore, they choose less formal forms of collaboration, as well as acting individually to solve their problems. Indeed, the fact that associations have a public profile and easily identifiable leaderships makes them potentially more vulnerable to hijacking by political elites. Thus, rejection of formal associations and a reliance on less visible configurations might constitute in some cases a form of resistance to attempts by political interests to control street workers and a way of maintaining some autonomy. Alternative forms of collaboration may represent a critique of “the possibilities and limits of formal politics” (Das and Randeria 2015: 8). However, as mentioned, invisible forms of agency are not the only (or generally preferred) political modality among street workers: street work associations are still created and many persist and adapt to new circumstances (see Lindell and Ampaire 2016, Spire and Choplin 2018), despite challenging economic and political environments.

The multiple logics of associations and their internal relations

16Street workers’ associations may serve a range of evolving purposes. Some are mainly concerned with the welfare of their members, with generating savings or with facilitating business, while others also seek to achieve recognition or protection for their members. They often combine a variety of functions, so that representation should not be seen as an isolated practice from other associational activities. In some cases, associations become authoritative institutions that de facto govern street work activities (Lindell 2008, Rodrigues and Bailoborska 2017, Monteith 2016). In the absence of the State as a regulator and provider of basic services, associations may create physical and regulatory infrastructures, which often confers upon them considerable authority. They may order physical spaces, establish rights and duties among operators, control access to certain resources and collect (sometimes compulsory) contributions. The cases of Maputo and Kampala illustrate this governing role of associations, despite their different trajectories.

17In Maputo, the vendors’ association established, from its beginning, committees in the markets. These committees provided basic services, controlled the allocation of vending space, created rules of behavior for the vendors, and stipulated and applied penalties. They also collected vendor fees, something that generated recurrent conflicts with the municipal authorities who collected their own fees. After many years, the association was able to establish a formalized agreement with the municipality whereby the collection of vendor fees was delegated to the association. This agreement also meant the recognition of the association’s role as the governing authority among the vendors. Transparency in the association concerning financial matters is limited, which, at some occasions, has resulted in serious conflicts and in one committee breaking up with the association. Despite holding elections, authority seems rather centralized within the association, which also creates discontent in some circles within the association (Lindell 2008).

18In Kampala, vendor associations in several markets converted themselves into vendor companies in order to be able to compete with external firms for management contracts when the management of city markets was being privatized. In some markets, the vendors’ organizations obtained the management contracts and became the recognized managers of their markets, although this was not a permanent condition as a different entity could win the next tendering process or the city authorities could reclaim the market (Monteith 2016). With the conversion from vendors associations to companies the number of participating vendors decreased, being restricted to those vendors who could afford to be shareholders in the vendors companies – poorer small-scale vendors thus tended to be excluded (Lindell and Appelblad 2009). Later on, where vendors’ organizations obtained the market leases and the mandate to redevelop their markets, outcomes were not necessarily positive for all vendors. In one case, the vendors’ company was able to redevelop the market into a majestic building but the poorer vendors were excluded from this development. Dissatisfaction would also grow among the benefitted share-holding vendors who would openly contest the governance practices of their leaders (Lindell and Ampaire 2016).

19The two cases exemplify how some vendors’ organizations develop considerable governing authority – an authority that may have exclusionary effects and that can also be contested. In this respect, they resemble what Christian Lund (2007) called “twilight institutions”, that is, institutions that in their actions simulate or resemble the State. It is thus important to consider power relations within associations. One aspect concerns the nature of leadership within them, for example, the extent to which association leaders allow and foster a culture of open discussion, involve members in the identification of priorities, ensuring rotation in leadership posts, and so on. Leadership styles and the level of participation they allow vary widely between associations, partly reflecting the political and cultural contexts in which they operate. But they also change over time. Associations cannot be assumed to evolve linearly after their formation towards an increasing maturity: changes in their participatory life over time may have important implications for their sustainability. Sometimes street workers’ associations experience a regression in terms of internal participation and, in some cases, a centralization of power in the person of the leader (see Lopes 2014 on Luanda). By virtue of this position, the leader establishes himself as the only mediator between the populations he claims to represent and the State. As long as the leader succeeds in protecting them and solving some of their problems, his legitimacy among the members is not necessarily shaken. However, this centralization of power does not favor the development of leadership capacities in a wider circle of members, and potentially increases their political dependence on the leader. In some cases, power struggles within associations become intense and even destructive to their cohesion. Indeed, these power dynamics within associations may sometimes contribute to a fading interest and participation by members in associative activities and thus to the decline of associations (see Lopes 2014, Rodrigues and Bialoborska 2017).

Representation of whose interests?

20A central aspect of the sustainability and transformative potential of street workers’ associations refers to whom these associations claim to represent and who can participate in them. Street economies are extremely diverse and differentiated in terms of the range of activities and groups involved. They encompass some of the poorest urban groups struggling with a lack of options, as well as better-off groups handling larger businesses (see Chivangue 2014 for Maputo, Prag 2010 for Cotonou). They comprise people of highly diverse social backgrounds, economic capacities and geographical origins. How street economy associations deal with this diversity is thus a central question.

21Associations may play an important role in bridging or, on the contrary, in amplifying social differences. Many associations focus on a very specific group, which they may define on the basis of type, size and location of business, or on the basis of ethnic or religious identification. The importance of geographical origin has increased, in an era when migration has intensified, not least for livelihood purposes. People from the rural hinterlands as well as growing numbers of international migrants and refugees pursue a livelihood on the streets of urban centers, contributing to a heightened competition in street economies (on Kampala, see for example Monteith and Lwasa 2017). International migrants’ penetration of local street economies has increased tensions with local business owners in some places. In South Africa, this has led to recurrent xenophobic attacks on migrant entrepreneurs, sometimes incited by local traders’ organizations (Crush et al. 2015, Williams 2015). Another common source of tension is competition between street and market vendors where the latter often blame the former for negatively affecting their incomes. For example, in Kampala, former street vendors that had been relocated into markets complained that those vendors who insisted on operating in the streets contributed to their low sales (see Lindell and Ampaire 2018). Some associations aim to include both groups but these tensions are not always easy to overcome. In Maputo, market vendors in the city center felt that the focus of attention of their association had shifted from market to pavement vendors and resented this change (interviews with market vendors and association leaders, 2018).

22Street economy associations do not solely or necessarily represent the concerns of the most vulnerable groups. Some associations exclusively defend the interests of relatively stronger operators and one of their main functions is to maintain their dominance in their sector and to block the entry of other groups. Other associations are more inclusive. They may involve members with different income levels and work situations, sexes and ages. For example, some include both employers and employees in street businesses. In fact, associations tend to gloss over exploitative labor arrangements in street economies (see Lopes 2014 on Luanda) – although they often intervene in the practical resolution of labor related conflicts. Many young people, whose participation in street economies has visibly increased, often work at the dependent end of informal work arrangements and face poor prospects for social mobility (Di Nunzio 2012, Rodrigues and Bialoborska 2017, Tranberg Hansen 2010, Kamete 2010). It is unclear whether existing associations also protect their interests or primarily those of their employers. In addition, under-aged street workers are usually not allowed to join formal associations.

23Women are present in large numbers in street work in many contexts, which reflects an impressive agency on their part, despite historically masculinist and elite oriented urban planning (Kinyanjui 2014). In some cases, women street workers create associations for women only; sometimes because they operate in a niche dominated by women (see for example Prag 2010), other times as a result of a strategic choice to ensure female leadership. In mixed-sex associations, it is not uncommon that leadership positions are mainly occupied by men, even when most members are women. This was the case with the vendors association in Maputo and Kampala (Lindell 2011a, Appelblad 2005). In such cases, there is a danger that the specific problems of women will be given low priority and that unequal gender relations prevail in these associations.

24In associations encompassing members of varied economic status, individuals with greater economic capacity tend to accede more easily to positions of leadership. On the one hand, this might mean that the leadership does not reflect the broader membership (when most members have low-incomes) and there is a risk that the priorities defined by the leaders do not reflect those of the members. On the other hand, given the great constraints encumbering self-organization among the poorest, it is usually the better-off who have the possibility (time, resources, contacts, education, etc.) of investing in associational and recruitment work. To what extent these leaders constitute the voice of a more disadvantaged majority is an essential question with implications for the prospects of sustained mobilization.

25Given the great heterogeneity of street workers and their diverse social locations and experiences of disadvantage (for a critique of a generalized category of the “urban poor”, see Das and Randeria’s 2015), it is important to consider whether and how associations are able to create a sense of unity and cohesion around common goals. This is a process permeated by power relations, potentially requiring the suppression of other injustices and subjectivities (for example, around labor relations or gender concerns), sacrificed in favor of a particular problem identified as primary or fundamental. This possibly enables an effective communication of common goals outwards and a focused negotiation with centers of power. Nevertheless, the subordination of other subjectivities and injustices also potentially generates tensions within associations. These tensions can either foster the maturation of an association towards recognition of the diverse needs of their members or, on the contrary, accentuate centrifugal forces and eventually lead to the demobilization of disenfranchised members. These issues are central both for the transformative potential of associations and for their longevity.

Widening configurations

26An important aspect of the dynamics of street workers’ collective organizing pertains to relations with other associations, within and beyond the street economy. The associative landscape within the street economy is often very fragmented, with many associations focusing on the concerns of particular groups, as mentioned. Given the great heterogeneity and differentiation found in street economies and the fact that some associations represent relatively more robust or influential groups than others (see Steck et al. 2013), relations between different associations can be seen as part of the politics of street work. As mentioned above, conflicts and rivalry exist among some associations within the street economy, where associations compete for members, for governing authority or for political influence (Lindell 2008, Monteith 2016, Lindell and Ampaire 2018).

27Despite great fragmentation and frequent tensions, there are also attempts to bridge across associations by creating umbrella organizations or networks that bring together associations operating in different locations – of a city, of a national territory, or across national borders. The dynamics and sustainability of these broader formations warrant research attention. In Kampala, a market vendors’ organization, the Kampala District Market Vendors Association (KDMVA), was founded in the 1980’s and created associations in a large number of markets across the city. By the mid-2000’s, however, the membership base of KDMVA had receded and the number of affiliated markets decreased, as several markets had ceased to have associations (Appelblad 2005). In the case of Maputo, the mentioned vendors association was set up as an umbrella organization by working as a network of committees across the city markets. Its city-wide structure would be central for the association’s claims to represent the vast population of informal workers in Maputo – and later, in the country, as the association established branches in other cities. Furthermore, soon after its foundation, the association joined an international federation of street workers organizations across the global South. Through participation in the international activities of the federation (exchange visits, international conferences, etc.), the association leaders gained important knowledge about the political strategies of other similar associations in other contexts, which they could use in their negotiations with authorities in Maputo (Lindell 2011a). Such participation was not conflict-free, particularly as gender hierarchies in the association clashed with feminist policy and practices in other organizations in the network.

28Participation in these widening configurations can potentially help to overcome some of the disadvantages of a fragmented associational landscape and, by gathering a larger constituency under the same umbrella, can possibly provide an avenue for increased influence. However, they also face the challenges of identifying sufficient common ground, feasible and meaningful forms of participation and legitimate forms of representation, through which the mobilization of a wider body of constituents can be maintained and disintegration avoided. The political potential of these networks of associations as well as the challenges they face are however scarcely studied.

29Another development in the last decade has been the creation of relationships between associations in the informal economy more generally and civil society organizations originally not concerned with these workers. These associations may emerge from, become integrated into or simply collaborate with those organizations. Bonner and Spooner (2011) describe a range of new collaborations with a diversity of organizations, including religious, non-governmental organizations and trade unions. They consider that building collaborative relationships with these organizations can offset some of the weaknesses that many informal workers associations face and make them stronger.

30Relationships with trade unions are considered to potentially offer a number of benefits for street worker constituencies (see Lindell 2010a, 2011b, Bonner and Spooner 2011, Rodrigues and Bialoborska 2017). Street worker associations, many of which lack influence and real recognition on the part of the State, may benefit from improved access to State institutions through dialogue channels normally reserved for trade unions. In Maputo, the vendors association was founded with the support of one of the trade union federations in the country and became a member of the federation (Lindell 2008). Although individual relationships between association leaders and politicians in the ruling party seem to be valued higher than the possibility of representation in tripartite dialogues, the association has gained knowledge about workers’ rights, organizational issues, etc. Being part of the union also requires the association to hold regular elections for leadership positions. In Kampala, in the mid-2000’s, competing trade union centers claimed that they had initiated efforts to organize workers in the informal economy, albeit using different approaches. The Central Organization of Free Trade Unions, for example, created a special department for this purpose, invited specific associations to become members and also endeavored to bring together associations of different groups of informal workers (market vendors, hawkers and motorcycle riders) to form a national union. However, the representatives of the trade union center considered that political patronage of some of those associations made their leaders hesitant to participate in these initiatives without getting the approval of their political patrons (Appelblad 2005).

31Relations with trade unions may also involve new challenges and risks, depending partly on the type of relations (full membership, associative membership or collaborative agreement). The limited research that exists suggests that integration of informal workers and their organizations into the structures of trade unions is sometimes nominal, marginal and unequal (see Kenny 2011). Under such conditions, those workers attain limited influence within unions and become restricted in their agency or dependent upon unions to represent their concerns to the government. Given the risks of unequal relations and of subordination to the agendas of more powerful organizations, informal workers sometimes prefer to organize autonomously (see Rodrigues and Bialoborska 2017, Andrae and Beckman 2011), while allowing for occasional collaboration around common projects. It should be added, however, that autonomous organizing among street workers is not always a result of their own choice: since some forms of street work (such as street vending, waste collection, etc.) are sometimes considerably stigmatized, trade unions and other mainstream organizations may prefer not to identify with them. The leader of a street vendors’ organization in Accra once explained: “Who would want to ally with us?”, when asked whether there were any links between his organization and other civil society organizations (interview with leaders of associations, 2018). Therefore, both unequal relationships as well as exclusion from possible collaborations are important elements to consider in relation to the transformative prospects and the perils of engagement in such wider configurations.


32This paper aimed to explore the prospects for and limitations of sustained collective organization among street workers and the political potentiality of their organizations. Some of the associational dynamics identified are not exclusive to organizations of street workers. However, organizing street workers and sustaining their organizations encounter specific and additional challenges, compared to other work related organizations, and which are related to the nature of their work (see Bonner and Spooner 2011, Lopes 2014). The physical dispersion of many street work activities such as street vending – in terms both of the small size of work units where self-employment is common, and of the spatial dispersion of people including varying degrees of mobility – constitutes a considerable challenge for forming associations and ensuring participation by members in association activities. The poor are often overrepresented in the street economy: many lack the time to participate in associative activities and the resources to contribute to association costs. This may result in low levels of active participation and in under-resourced associations­, although it does not mean that “the poor are not capable of politics” and does not determine the forms that the politics of the “urban poor” can take (Das and Randeria 2015: 4, 12). Some forms of street work suffer from stigma in many contexts or are not acknowledged as ‘work’ and their practitioners are viewed as unentitled to representation. Consequently, their associations are seldom recognized as ‘worker organizations’ and thus may lack direct access to dialogue platforms that other organizations enjoy. These specific characteristics thus create additional difficulties for organizing among street workers and for its long-term sustainability, which warrants particular attention to street workers organizations.

33The above difficulties are compounded by a range of other pressures, both external and internal to street workers’ associations, as the paper has discussed. In what concerns external pressures, the challenges arising from the economic and political context of these associations are substantial. Greater exposure to economic forces and the intensification of exclusionary urban development and of punitive governmental attitudes towards street workers, all contribute to a deepening precarity among many street workers and further degrade the material conditions for collective organizing. Yet, these growing strains have also provided an impetus for the emergence of new collective organizations among street workers. Some of these organizations have come to play a critical role in the defense of street workers’ rights to urban space but many achieve limited political influence. Often shut out from formal governance processes, many of these associations try to attain influence through engaging in informal relationships with political elites. While they may gain a measure of protection, this is achieved at the cost of political autonomy and, sometimes, of their legitimacy among their members. In some cases, these associations fall prey to the interests of political elites or become instruments of State control.

34The political potential of street workers organizations is also contingent upon their internal dynamics, although these are also closely linked to external processes. As mentioned earlier in the paper, associations are not necessarily inclusive or democratic, in terms of their structures, leadership styles and internal processes of participation, and the way they relate to other groups of street workers and society. When associations become de facto regulators of street work, they may command great authority over their members. Another concern is who they actually represent. The extent to which associations actually represent the concerns of the most disadvantaged is of particular concern. Many associations defend the narrow interests of specific groups, which contributes to an excessive fragmentation of associational life (or even to conflicts between different organized interests). In addition, many associations seem to lack a broader and long-term vision and to be mainly occupied with addressing urgencies such as eviction threats or with the daily governing of the members and of activities within their sector.

35Given the considerable external pressures on and internal limitations of associations of street workers, can these associations become vehicles of transformation towards more just urban societies? Can they find ways to survive and grow, or will they succumb to the multiple constraints and burdens? These are complex questions whose answers are highly dependent upon the specific histories and social and political configurations of particular places (see Das and Randeria 2015 on the agency of place in relation to the politics of the urban poor). However, some general reflections can be made.

36In some contexts, there is noticeable skepticism among street workers towards associations or even a regression of existing associations (see, for example, Frias 2014, Rodrigues and Bialoborska 2017), related to modest achievements, subordination to political interests, lack of resources or internal weaknesses. If demobilization would become a widespread trend and associative efforts prove generally unsustainable, who else would lead a project of transformation that is beneficial to the vast population of street workers? Since an important advantage of associational forms is the possibility of articulating demands and collective visions for transformation, what other formations could possibly play this role? Less visible organizational forms such as mutual support networks, while important, seldom make themselves heard or demand societal change. The ephemeral riots that increasingly shake up African cities and mobilize large numbers of young people depending on street livelihoods are politically important but cannot replace more enduring forms of collective organization. Although these violent manifestations might reflect a disillusionment with existing channels of political participation and influence (formal or informal) and perhaps a disbelief in associations as a way to achieve meaningful change, the grievances they manifest also need to find more persistent vehicles and durable advocates.

37A future scenario devoid of street worker organizations capable of negotiating and articulating collective interests would confirm Mike Davis’ (2004) apocalyptic view: a vast “informal proletariat” lacking historical agency and whose political capacity is reduced to explosive and short-lived manifestations of discontent. However, does informalization ultimately mean the end of emancipatory struggles, as he insinuates? Current trends indicate that, despite largely unfavorable political and economic contexts, street workers’ collective organization is not necessarily doomed to disappear, as elaborated below. New street worker associations continue to emerge and many persist, against all odds. Some also become part of wider and emerging configurations, which may open new possibilities as well as new challenges. In recent years, a number of street workers’ associations have entered into collaborative relationships with other collective actors such as trade unions and NGOs, and others have become part of national and international networks of associations. Regarding the political potential of partnerships with unions, some consider them pivotal to increase access to the State, to instigate a reorientation of economic policy, to develop an alternative to the neoliberal order and to democratize the political game more generally (Bonner and Sponner 2011, Andrae and Beckman 2011). Others are skeptical of a role for trade unions as vanguard actors in social emancipation (Kenny 2012, Barchiesi 2010). Thus, for the political potential of such partnerships to be realized, some suggest, power imbalances must be addressed and street worker associations need to maintain their autonomy in order to be able to identify their own priorities and to represent the specific concerns of their constituencies (Bonner and Sponner 2011, Lindell 2011b).

38The participation of some street workers’ associations in international networks expands their horizons of the imaginable (through exchange of experiences, mutual learning, etc.), sometimes boosts their assertiveness in relation to domestic authorities, and the encounter with different cultures and ideologies might also induce internal development in the associations (Lindell 2011a). However, due to various constraints (related to mobility, economic resources, etc.), direct participation in international activities may be limited to a small number of people as well as mediated by association leaders.

39The political effects of the above partnerships and interactions is indeterminable and depends both on their contexts and on the ways in which the actors involved deal with the risks and difficulties that such collaborations entail. However, they may have some potential for enabling street economy associations to overcome some of their weaknesses and for contributing to their growth and influence. Bonner and Spooner (2011) suggest a multifaceted strategy in which such associations articulate with other organizations (unions, NGOs, etc.) acting in their geographical contexts, as well as with initiatives at the international level. The emerging participation in broader networks and configurations deserve further research attention as it can stimulate new dynamics in street workers associations, by potentially transcending the logics of emergency, particularism and fragmentation that constrain many associations, broadening their visions and understanding of a just urban society. Such collaborations may present one possible avenue for progressing towards a transformative, robust and sustainable associational life among street workers.

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Electronic reference

Ilda Lindell, « Street Work: Dynamics and Trajectories of Collective Organizing », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 17-18 | 2018, Online since 01 September 2018, connection on 25 April 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/articulo.3670

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About the author

Ilda Lindell

Ilda Lindell is Associate Professor at the Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University. She works on the politics of urban informality with a focus on street work, in the context of rapid urban transformation in Africa. Lindell leads the Urban Africa research group ( at the above department and currently coordinates several projects, including a project titled “The Demise of the Informal City? Economic growth and street work in urban Africa”. She is the editor of Africa’s Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transnational Organizing in Urban Africa (2010, Zed Books) and guest editor of several special issues in journals, including “Re-spatializing urban informality in the Global South” in International Development Planning Review. She has authored a number of articles and the book “Walking the Tight Rope: Informal Livelihoods and Social Networks in a West African City” (Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2002, 2006 2nd ed). Email:

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