By Cecily Harwitt, USLEAP
Like in many other major cities of the developing world, informal activity accounts for a big part of the economy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Whether that means shining shoes on a street corner or living in a house built on occupied land, residents of these cities have chosen to live slightly outside the law rather than comply with cumbersome regulations that would make it nearly impossible for them to do the same thing legally. In Buenos Aires specifically, the subway makes for a fascinating case study of this phenomenon, since on any given ride passengers can expect to see a number of vendors peddling goods from stickers to bootleg DVDs to ankle and wrist braces. This forced collision brings together the public, many of whom live and work entirely within the “formal” sector, the informal workers, and the privately-owned space of the subway system. This summer, I studied and interviewed these itinerant subway vendors in an effort to understand why they came to do this kind of work. While I heard a range of personal histories from the 18 vendors I interviewed, one thing common to each story was the terrible labor conditions that sent them running from the formal world.
Fidel, a relatively new employee on the subway told me that he had lost several jobs after reporting injustices he had witnessed in the workplace. After growing tired of the need to remain silent to keep a job, he began working on the subway so that he could be his own boss. He narrated the story of a friend who works from 6 AM to 6 PM and has a two-hour commute (many people live in Buenos Aires sprawling suburban area but work in the city limits). The man’s only child is asleep when he leaves for work at 4 in the morning and again when he gets back at 8 at night. This story is a common one, and it shows what has driven many into the informal economy, which is more volatile but less cruel than its counterpart.
Although working in the informal sector means the loss of benefits such as retirement or sick leave, the subway vendors have found a way to subsist via self-regulation and support within the group. Many of them told me that when one vendor gets sick, the rest take up a small collection to curb his or her losses for the day. Similarly, they help one another with the necessary capital to begin: a newcomer might be lent money for that first day’s supply of coloring books. This kind of collaboration is a relief for those who have had bad experiences in the formal workforce. But if this body is beginning to assume formal patterns and expectations, what differentiates it from any other job? The acceptance of formal rules by the vendors shows that the problem lies not with the inherent nature of the formal economy, but rather with the harsh labor conditions that have come to be associated with it. While neither type of jobs come with sufficient labor protections, at least working in the subway affords a degree of freedom unavailable in other areas.
As 37-year-old Oscar explained to me, in the formal sector “The boss is the boss and the peon is the peon.” The independence and equality of the subway has been more than enough for many to draw them away from the increasingly oppressive conditions of any legal alternative.