Since the beginning of the year, Florida, a busy commercial street in the centre of Buenos Aires, has become a scene of protest and conflict as police attempt to clear the pedestrian thoroughfare of its many street sellers.
A new law, sanctioned in December, prohibits street vendors from operating outside of designated areas away from the city centre. But the manteros—so called in Buenos Aires as they typically display their merchandise on a blanket (the word “manta” means “blanket” in Spanish)—have resisted efforts to evict them from busy shopping streets.
On 17th January, groups of manteros blocked traffic on the busy Av. Corrientes for several hours, while others are engaged in a hunger strike along Florida itself.
The controversial bill aims to strike a compromise between the street sellers who demand a right to earn a living and shop owners who claim they are put at a disadvantage by operating as an official entity.
Big Business in the Street
Manteros sell everything from cellphone covers to jewellery and have grown in numbers in recent years. According to the Argentine Confederation of Medium-sized Enterprises (CAME), these street vendors now generate around $9.1 million in sales daily, which means around $3.3bn in business a year.
CAME also reported that in the city of Buenos Aires there are 7,981 street “stands” – known as “puestos callejeros” – which sell approximately $1,150 per day.
Most of these street vendors sell the same merchandise found in stores, since they usually buy them from the same distributor. This causes a rivalry between the shop owners and the manteros, who mostly sell the same products outside the stores for a much lower price.
“It is a totally unfair trade because we have to pay taxes, employees salaries and a lot of expenses. The manteros don’t have to spend on anything like that, so they are selling their products for much less than we are,” said Diego Martines, a store manager in Florida, which is one of the main locations for the street vendors in Buenos Aires. “If I sell something for $60 and they sell in front of it the same product for $30, people are going to buy from them, not from me.”
“[The manteros] even disturb you when you are walking, it is as if you were in a car in a traffic jam. They are in the middle of the sidewalk, occupying space and sometimes are in the way to the entrance of my business, making it hard for potential customers to get in,” he adds.
Another store manager, Letícia Jaime, is also against the presence of the manteros in Florida and says “it is very unfair, since they don’t pay taxes and I do while they sell the same merchandise as me.”
Jaime estimated that over 60 stores on Florida have closed since manteros set up.
The largest concentration of manteros in the capital is in Av. Avellaneda, between the neighbourhoods of Flores and Floresta. There are 1,435 street vendors selling mainly clothes in the area according to CAME, almost the same as the number of stores (approximately 1,500).
Many store owners say they feel threatened by the manteros. Some say they are linked to a mafia that steals merchandise from distributors and stores, placing the same supposedly stolen goods to be sold on the street.
“The government demands the stores to have a receipt for what their clients purchased. People who buy products on the streets have no receipts, so let us just say you do not really know where the goods came from,” shop owner Cristina Macrisca warns.
According to Martines, the street vendors “sell fake products from famous brands, that is also why they sell more.”
D, a 23 year-old Peruvian woman who did not want to give her name, has worked as a mantera for a little over a year selling mobile phone covers and sun glasses, says that her customers know the difference between her goods and those in nearby shops: “the stores’ merchandise is original, what I sell here are replicas (…) People know well what they are buying from me, they know they are replicas.”
On the other hand, A and L, who are also Peruvian manteros, have been selling clothes on the street for the last three years and according to them their products are as good as the ones in the stores. “There is not much difference from the products we sell in the streets and the ones in the shops,” assures A.
“They are all the same quality,” adds L.
Law 4122 And The Domino Effect
Newly introduced law 4122 states that the manteros will have specific places in the city to sell their goods, namely five parks in the capital that are further from the city centre: Lezama, Centenario, Patrícios, Saavedra and Paseo del Retiro. It also stipulates that manteros operating on Florida, Av. Avellaneda or any other spots that are not in those determined spaces are to be evicted.
However, the bill has already been criticised by both stores owners and manteros. Several shop owners and 83 commerce-related organizations—CAME and Commerce and Industry Federation of the City of Buenos Aires (FECOBA) included—are outraged that they will still have to compete with street vendors, even if these only operate in certain spaces.
In an open letter to city mayor Mauricio Macri, published in 30th December, these organisations complained that while the bill prohibits manteros from unfairly affecting local businesses, it still legitimises what they consider illegal street commerce.
“We should note that the approved measure has deficiencies that will allow the misuse of the public space, as well as its illegal and illegitimate commercial exploitation,” points out the document.
In another act of protest, just days before Christmas, many stores in Florida sold their merchandise out on the streets, with no receipts and tax free. According to CAME, sales at that time of the year on Florida street rise to around $1 million per day.
The manteros, meanwhile, say the law prevents them from earning a living. Under the new placement scheme, they will be transferred to more remote areas of the city, further from the busy centre where most currently operate and most shoppers gather.
“We all need to work and to make our money. What the [city] government is doing is not all bad… I mean, the problem is the [legal] location to sell our things,” says D.
D used to sell her merchandise in Florida, but, because of the new law and the police clashes, she decided to move to Av. de Mayo.
Despite the protests and highly-visible clashes in the city centre, the city government is holding a steady position on the matter. Vice mayor María Eugenia Vidal declared in mid-January that “the illegal commerce is prohibited not only in Av. Florida, but also throughout the city and [the city hall] will continue to support the law enforcement in that sense.”
However, some city politicians do not agree with the measure. Deputy Delia Bisutti accused city mayor Mauricio Macri of trying to evict the manteros in Florida “using norms that were written and implemented during dictatorships, rather than creating new tools that emerge from democratic contexts with the participation of the citizens.”
Bisutti, who is affiliated to the Nuevo Encuentro party, added that “Macri began his second term and continues to demonstrate he is ineffective for the inhabitants of the city [of Buenos Aires].”
The Immigration Factor
Another complicating factor in the street vendor matter is the fact that many manteros are foreigners, often coming from Peru and Bolivia, who find it difficult to gain employment.
Despite the availability of residency permits for foreigners coming from the Mercosur region, these workers often complain the immigration system in Argentina is too slow and the employers will only hire citizens that have permanent residency or a DNI, the national ID document.
According to the 2010 national census, there are 157,514 Peruvians and 345,272 Bolivians living in Argentina, representing almost a third of the foreign population.
Though they are able to apply for a temporary working visa in Argentina, the process to get the paperwork completed can take a long time—up to three years, according to the manteros interviewed for this article—and many immigrants turn to illegal jobs, street trading being one of the most popular amongst them.
“I can not work in anything else because I do not have the papers necessary to work [in this country] (…) it will take me over a year to get a residency and I can not be without a job for all that time. The only option I have is to do this,” confessed D.
“There are many Peruvians in my situation and we are not going to wait that long to get our paperwork to finally make money. We need to survive.”
A and L also point out that the delay in the Argentine immigration system to grant them residency led them to become manteros: “Since I got here I did not have the paperwork and [the employers] always asked me to present a temporary residency or a DNI. After that, I started to work by myself on the street,” explains A.
“For every job you apply here they ask for your paperwork. Without paperwork, you will not get a job,” adds L. “To be legal here they ask you for a lot of documents that take a long time to get. There is also the time you wait for the appointment in the immigration, which can take months and if everything is ok with the papers you present them, it will take another few months to get your DNI.”
A emphasises the need for the government not just to make it faster for foreigners get their residency and their papers in order, but also to create better conditions for street vendors to work. “All we are asking is for [the government] to give us a good place to work. We have families, we need to work.”
What About The Artisans?
Another controversial aspect of the new law is the impact on street vendors selling artisanal products. Even though they make unique goods and do not compete directly with stores, they are considered by the city government to be in the same group as those who re-sell manufactured products.
Craftsman Niño Cuni is originally from the province of Catamarca. He has been selling his crafts in the corner of Peru and Av. de Mayo for more than ten years.
He believes that there has to be ethics when trading on the street and the government cannot put the artisans and the illegal traders in the same pack. “I think we all have the right to live and to seek a way of living… What I do not agree with are people with no morals in the street.”
“A shop owner pays their expenses, employees salaries, bills, etc. If someone has a t-shirt shop and I start selling t-shirts in front of their store, that is a lack of morals because you are disrespecting the trader that has their business in that place. It is unfair trading.”
Shop traders also approve of the presence of artisans selling their art in the same place as them.
“The artisans and the manteros are two different things; the artisans do not sell falsified goods nor harm my business,” Martines points out.
In relation to the new city law, Cuni has very strong opinions: “[selling on] the street provides me food. Macri does not provide me food… or is the national government going to give me a subsidy of $300 to eat?
“I was born to work, I offer what I can do. This way I earn my money, with honour. ”
In spite of it all, the vice mayor recognised last month that there are differences between the street vendors and the artisans: “there is a need to differentiate a minority of craftsmen, who are having talks with the city government and will certainly find a way out from the category of those that conduct illegal trading.”
Vidal later added that for those who sell merchandise illegally “there is no possibility for meetings.”