Are the Roma better street vendors?

Bazaars in the Capital of Georgia, Tbilisi are no easy place to navigate. The central Bazaar of the city spreads along few blocks and is comprised of few Bazaars of different sizes, shopping malls and the street vendors in between. For last few years, primarily in the years of 2010 -2012, when the Tbilisi City hall was taking harsh measures against illegal street vendors, the surroundings of Bazaar looked the most bizarre. At one point in a day the streets and pavements would get filled with street vendors, walking around, sometimes vocally advertising their goods. At another point, they would quickly pack their goods and disappear from the sight. The streets turned empty and silent. The vendors ran away from city hall supervisors, which in case of catching a vendor, would issue a fine or confiscate their goods. This “run and come back” tactics of the vendors made them look like some criminals, or drug dealers, that need to be extremely careful to hide from the police. In fact, most of the vendors were ladies, often elderly ladies, carrying a little box of herbs, or a plastic bag filled with socks to sell.

Urban unemployment is over 26 percent in Georgia; hence, it is a common practice for many of the inhabitants of Tbilisi, or recent urban migrants to shelter bazaars to earn their living. Small retail trade and street vending became widespread in the urban areas of Georgia since 1990s. Unregulated and largely informal trade, around Bazaars, metro station, in improvised Kiosks and stands, was one of the important survival mechanisms for the population facing instability and social hardships.

After the Rose Revolution of 2003 the state started intervening in the small trade markets. The prevalence of kiosks and vendors in the public space did not fit the modernization agenda of post-revolutionary government. Over last eight years the government is trying to control the illegal vendors, and the vendors are developing diverse, often creative tactics to subvert governmental regulations and avoid punishment.

In this short article I do not intend to discuss why is it that some vendors managed to legalize their activity while the others didn’t; if they are unwilling to follow the regulations or unable; has government provided the vendors with viable alternatives after restricting street vending , etc. I only want to share one observation – out of the groups and the individuals that attempt to continue vending illegally, the group of Georgian Roma stand out as seemingly most “successful” ones. They are successful because they can resist and avoid control the best and are able to vend despite harsh patrolling of street vending sites by the police and the specially assigned supervisors of Tbilisi City Hall.

Throughout my ethnographic research on the responses of the illegal vendors to the changed regulations, I observed that the key to the success of the Georgian Roma relative to other groups lies in their capacity to mobilize collectively.  While most of the other vendors and traders are working individually, the Roma embed their into the kinship ties. This means that: firstly, when they buy the products for retail they pool the money together, buy more goods for cheaper price, redistribute it inside the group members and sell it for cheap. Secondly, because they commonly show up on vending sites in groups, also bringing children of different age to work, they are able to assign different functions to different members. When the policemen or the city hall supervisors appear, the groups of Roma vendors know about it in advance, as few persons are assigned to keep an eye and warn the rest about the hazard. In order to avoid confiscation of their goods, the younger members of the group are constantly mobilized to pack the goods and run fast from the site. In case the supervisors still manage to grab their goods, the elderly members engage themselves in conflict with the supervisors, while the younger ones try to steal back their confiscated goods from the supervisor’s cars or sometimes hands.

Hence, the main difference between the Roma and other vendors is that the Roma organize collectively and involve their children in the work. While this makes their vending more dynamic and may be more profitable, the obvious cost is that the younger generations are deprived from the opportunities to study be upwardly mobile. Often it is assumed that it is in the “culture” and the “traditions” of the Roma to organize their trade collectively and involve the children. The fellow vendors as well as city hall supervisors often refer to culturally specific ways that the Roma organize their economic practices. In turn,  their “culture” explains why they are excluded from the society. However, the “culture” in its turn is defined by social exclusion and the specific challenges that the communities face.

It only takes an example of an ethnic Georgian vendor that started engaging her child in vending to illustrate the power of daily necessities over the “culture”. Mostly ethnic Georgian illegal vendors are the women over their 40s. They most often vend alone, or in some cases together with their husbands. As being a trader in Bazaar is associated with negative stereotypes in Georgia, the vendors dislike their job and are ashamed of it. However, they say that they vend and trade out of the necessity to support their children and to allow them study. However, this tendency of taking care of children’s education is there only as far as it can be afforded.  Marika (the name is changed intentionally) is a single mother that started vending only recently. She is vending in front of a metro station together with her ten years old son. For a while she was vending alone, but as she was unable to run from the city hall supervisors her goods were confiscated few times. Hence, she started bringing her son to the vending site to hide the goods from the supervisors in case they appear.  Obviously, her move means that as long as she does not find any alternative income generating activity to illegal street vending, her son will be unable to go to school. From this perspective, social exclusion and lack of access to decent employment or welfare is the main reason why individuals, families and groups decide to make their children work and quit studies. Thus, structural problems do not differentiate among “cultures”.

The conclusion I draw from this example might be overstretched, but it seems to me, that the Roma are better equipped to cope with the policies of Tbilisi city hall, primarily because they have long been the excluded group and have learned and developed the collective tactics to cope with exclusion. For the ethnic Georgian urban poor and urban migrants the exclusion of the extent is relatively new. They often see their activity as a ‘temporary’ solution, and try to distance their children from the type of activity they pursue. Thus, the Roma have advantage while solving short term challenges, but they narrow down the long-term opportunities for the members of their group. While, the ethnic Georgians, that are under similar socio-economic pressures as the Roma, are less capable of solving immediate problems. However, the privilege of the ethnic Georgian vendors is that they are more able to focus on long-term goals and they stay more optimistic about their own ability to climb up on the social ladder. As social economic inequality deepens in the country, it is unclear if the latter group will be able to hold on this advantage.