Street sellers,trade unionists,contributors to Nicaragua's wealth
News from Nicaragua | Tuesday, 22 January 2019 |
The social economy in Nicaragua is the largest in Latin America, generating 40% of the country’s wealth and representing 90% of the workforce. It is made up of co-operatives, associations, small and medium businesses and farms, and self-employed workers such as street sellers.
Nicaragua is unique in having a government ministry called the Ministry of the Family, Community, Cooperative and Associative Economy (MEFCCA) solely responsible for empowering and facilitating the work of the social economy.
Since July, the organisations that make up this sector have grouped together to form the Council for the Social Economy (CONADES) which is playing a leading role in economic reactivation.
NSC interviewed Flor de María Avellán, a self-employed worker selling goods at traffic lights and at fairs. She is also joint General Secretary of the Confederation of Self-Employed Workers (CTCP), a member organisation of CONADES.
We are self-employed workers and trade unionists too!
We went through tough times in 1998 [during the neoliberal government of Arnoldo Aleman] when we were being constantly harassed and evicted. Our organisation was founded in 2002 but although we were organised we weren’t recognised by the authorities. For this reason we did not make progress until the Sandinista government came to power in 2007, prevented further evictions and recognised us as an organisation.
We also became a trade union, although some fellow trade unionists could not understand how we could be a union if we were independent street sellers. Who were our employers? Being in a union implies a boss and wages, but we chose this form of organisation because being a trade union is way of empowering workers. We said, “Why not? We are workers too.” So we claimed the title of self-employed workers.
Our main success is achieving our right to occupy public spaces where we had previously been evicted and penalised. Local authorities now recognise us - the mayors say, “If you are organised we can work together”. This recognition has meant that we feel included in local and national decision making. It has been an ongoing challenge but it has brought us a long way forward.
Given the vulnerability and insecurity of our members, our key issues have been our integration into the national social security system, healthcare, and personal safety. We started to learn about social security and now a large number of us are integrated into the system. Local government and the Minister of Health have greatly improved the national health system. In terms of personal security we have worked closely with the police because we are in a vulnerable occupation – anything can happen on the streets.
The situation of the sellers at traffic lights and bus stops keeps changing and one of the achievements through this government is that we are becoming more capable. I laugh when I think that seven years ago even using computers filled us with terror – now we are using social media to sell our products online and we can do business from home on our phones. The Ministry of Family, Community, Co-operative and Associative Economy (MEFCCA) is enabling us to access technology to strengthen businesses.
Flor de Maria went on to describe the impact of the crisis and violence between April and July when opposition protesters set up thousands of roadblocks on highways and within towns to try to force the government to step down.
This has had a massive financial, social and psychological impact on our lives: many of us are still recovering.
For eleven years we had become used to living in the relative comfort of peace and suddenly from one day to the next, our whole lives changed.
Our businesses are very small and precarious, so a woman who one day finds she has nowhere to work is obviously badly affected. They [the opposition protesters] destroyed our unprotected workspaces, our tiny kiosks, our stalls. We didn’t understand what was happening, just that the effect was terrible.
The violent events also brought a feeling of impotence, which I also felt, because I had lost my business. Imagine! In only one month our economy completely collapsed. The people who did this gave us no thought, no consideration. Didn’t they know there were thousands and thousands of women and men in this sector and that we wouldn’t be able to survive? If they had given us some warning perhaps we could have prepared for it financially – as it was it took us completely by surprise.
A lot has been said on social networks but we know what has really happened because we are here and we lived it day after day. At the start we didn’t know who was responsible or what their aims were: they came up with a lot of excuses. Government social security reforms were manipulated by protesters as being an attack on pensioners’ rights. They used this and a lot of other excuses to reach their real objective, which was to strike a blow against our freely elected and democratic government.
We now understand the political forces involved, some NGOs and foreign organisations came together to cause us harm. To put it bluntly, that is how we in this sector see things, progress appears to upset them, they don’t like social programmes, free healthcare, education and transport or other flagship government programmes that benefit those of us working in such a precarious sector.
What they [the opposition protesters] did was a violation of our human rights. They violated the right to go to education because in those violent times we couldn’t send our children to school, we were afraid they would be kidnapped - or worse - if they saw that we had a different political ideology than the one they supported.
They kidnapped us, they burned our things, they threatened us and they persecuted us for being organised workers. That’s why I say that the damage was also psychological, because when you are threatened, and when you can’t get to work because there’s this threat that your house will be burned down, and you see all the violence, we didn’t leave our houses for a month.
We abandoned everything and preferred that they burned our pitches. In the news we saw that they burned a radio station and they burned parts of the universities. So I said if they set fire to an institution they might do anything to me. It’s better if I don’t go out. If they’re going to burn my business, let them do it – I’m staying here.
Flor de Maria explains how she is surviving through trying new things and her hopes for the social economy.
Until April I had been selling car accessories, carpets, cushions, umbrellas and towels at traffic lights on the road between Managua and Masaya but my business almost failed. Now more than ever I have to do something new, to innovate. We sell almost anything mainly at fairs that the government is organising across the country for small businesses.
Because we're small, dispersed and fragmented and our products have no added value we have to forge solidarity links and alliances, for example between small farmers and street sellers or exchanges between small businesses so that we can sell each other’s products.
The greatest challenge now is how to build, with government support, a national and Central American commercial chain based on the social economy.