Illegal street vendors, the guys hawking fake Chanel bags and Gucci sunglasses, are a phenomenon the world over, and their trade is big business. In Los Angeles, they add half a billion dollars a year to the local economy.
In Barcelona, their turnover is 100 million euros a year, according to the CCC (Confederation of Commerce of Catalonia).
The problem isn’t getting any smaller either, particularly in the densely packed tourists areas of Barcelona where it has played itself out as a game of cat and mouse between the local police force and the predominantly West African vendors.
The vendors here are known as “top manta” for the blankets — or mantas — they spread out on the sidewalk, laced at each corner with ropes for a quick getaway when the police approach.
But the recently-elected left-leaning city administration in this Mediterranean city is taking a new — and controversial — approach to this complex issue. They argue that the real fault is the government’s for not having a more comprehensive immigration policy.
In that vein, Mayor Ada Colau has welcomed the newly created Popular Union for Street Vendors (Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes), established this month by the illegal vendors themselves. Its stated purpose is to fight discrimination, racism and police violence.
Pape Diop, one of the union’s spokesmen told “el diario” without irony that his parents would never accept money that came from an illegal activity.
The union has already told its members never to engage with the police, and in the case of tension to simply record the police’s action on their mobiles.
After coming into office in April, the mayor and her city administration launched a five-month study of the illegal vendor situation, interviewing hundreds of them. Their report, which was released in September — shortly after a Senegalese vendor fell to his death during a police raid in Salou, a beach town south of Barcelona — concluded that a social rather than police response was needed. Social exclusion lead immigrants, mostly illegal themselves, to work for the underground counterfeiting economy, the report said.
Colau also framed the problem in the larger context of the current humanitarian crisis reaching Europe’s shores. Without a national and international response, she said, the problem would only increase.
Laia Ortiz, deputy mayor for Social Rights said: “These are immigrants in an irregular situation who do not have a regulated alternative means to earn a living.” She added that they had found no evidence of mafias, only those linked to trafficking immigrants and gangs linked to counterfeit goods. The vendors themselves, she said, were only loosely organized and numbered about 400.
Yet how should a city respond? Barcelona’s city administration has left little doubt about where it stands. Jaume Asens, a deputy mayor overseeing citizen rights for Barcelona, tweeted after the Senegalese vendor’s death in August: “First victim of the criminalization of poverty.”
Jordi Samsó, the new police commissioner, criticized the customs and tax agency, arguing that if it had found more of the illegal merchandise in the first place then the illegal vendors would have nothing to sell.
Illegal vending is a long-standing issue and one that Barcelona and the Generalitat (regional Catalan government) have been tackling for years in different ways.
The Generalitat has produced and distributed a pamphlet in tourist areas titled “Say No!” which explains why the public shouldn’t buy from illegal vendors. Among the reasons: “Because it is controlled by mafias and organized by crime networks…. it stimulates clandestine work fuelled by slavery; it causes enormous damage to legal industries and trade; it infringes industrial and intellectual property rights…. And because for all these reasons you will end up paying far more than you might have saved. You and the rest of society.”
On the back of the pamphlet it reminds people that they can also be fined for buying counterfeit goods.
Three years ago in 2012, the CCC began a campaign called “Estirem de la manta,” a play on words meaning “to pull back the cover.” The idea was to raise public awareness of the social and economic harm of illegal sales. In a report it published in 2013, the CCC argued that the public often mistakenly believes illegal street selling is benign and keeps vendors from pursuing more aggressive criminal activities such as robbery. Whereas, the vendors are already being exploited and ensnared in a hidden crime network.
The CCC distributed 40,000 leaflets in various languages and worked with local governments in towns up and down the coast to integrate immigrants into the legal commercial sector.
But the biggest customers of all this contraband are foreign tourists, who are happy to pick up a 20 euro Louis Vuitton bag as a memento of their trip (a friend of a friend of mine did exactly this), and head off home, little aware of the damage they leave in their wake.