The Fugitive Merchant
Forty-four years old with passports that have been stamped by at least four countries where he acquired a dozen temp jobs history. His work life tells the tale of how money has informed our conception of justice and why that is such a faulty approach.
His life history confirms that he is indeed a wanderer. How he arrives at his current, which seems to be his final destination, can be a mouthful. The current location is in Manchester and his name is Moustapha – a Senegalese migrant who has lived in France, Italy, and other UK cities. You can name a temporary or informal job and he probably has done it. He once worked as a waitress, hospitality worker, airport baggage handler, cleaner, and Amazon warehouse worker, but eventually settled as a Pedlar – a form of street trading occupation that requires the business owner to constantly move in order to avoid being caught – or to be more precise, fined.
Moustapha chose to become a Pedlar because he always wanted to work for himself by himself. He dislikes a limiting schedule that dictates when and how long he should work and how much he earned. “When you have a family back home, it’s hard to survive with £4.25”, said Moustapha about his time when he was still working at TESCO in the 2000s.
Pedlary, albeit in a different style, has its own limit of space and time. After all, pedlars are only required for an annual Pedlar’s certificate that costs £12.25 per annum. They do not need to pay for a pitch and have no obligation to own insurance. Meanwhile, street traders – the closest competitor to pedlars, have to pay annual fees which price depend on how many days a week they want to run the economic activities. In Greater Manchester, the cost of a street trader license and street trader consent combined amount to £1,140 per annum. That’s about 93 times the price of a Pedlar’s certificate.
The regulation regarding how long a pedlar can remain static in one place differs across UK cities. Moustapha mentioned that in Manchester, the regulation that is enforced on them is five minutes, which he concluded was inconsistent with the 20 minutes regulation under international law, showing his familiarity with the law and order.
But even with the upper limit of 10 minutes under the UK legislation, the practice in Manchester is a deviation. The BIS report published in 2011 also documented comments from local authorities that supported the five-minute rule. Pedlars must not stop “for more than 5 minutes; moving on 200meters; cannot return within 50 meters of other pedlar”, except if an individual was interested in buying something from a Pedlar.
In five minutes, you can hardly attract prospective customers that happened to be passing by. When you are about to establish your offering, you ought to be on the move, again. Moustapha was once brought to court because he failed to move by a mere minute. The court charged him a fine and all the products that he was selling were taken away from him. “Send us to court, but don’t seize our stuff”, he said, reflecting on his experience. 10 minutes is reasonable, but five minutes is just a harsh and discriminatory policy. The loss that is caused by a split second of failure to move from an already unjust time limit experienced by someone who is clearly not in the better-off segment of the population does not form a part of decision-making by the local authorities.
The regulation is seemingly an attempt to manifest justice, albeit in relative terms. How does the regulation justify the higher price charged to those who pay more for running their economic activity? This would be a somewhat less debatable decision if those who choose to apply for Pedlar’s certificates and those who want to open street vendors are of the same socioeconomic standing. But, judging by the amount of capital required to build and sustain a street vendor in the UK, they are not.
Pedlars have vulnerable earnings. On good days, Moustapha can generate a gross income of as high as £60. On bad days, however, he could wander around the city and earns nothing. On the other hand, street vendors, with their confirmed whereabouts, can secure familiarity amongst customers and the memory of the vendors’ location give a higher chance of recurring customers.
It is safe to conclude that the rules are created in relation to monetary aspects. Those who pay more are eligible for better treatment. But in this case, the better treatment is not in a form of a premium. Rather, it is in a form of an unsympathetic act towards the vulnerable segments of the population. This direction is dangerous because it prevents equal treatment in the name of humanity that carefully takes into account why things are the way they are.
The solution does not necessarily have to be a matter of applying justice in absolute terms, because even that would be relative between parties. Manchester local authorities’ definition of justice would be different from that of other municipalities. Policymaking should have a multidimensional sensibility – the ability to be mindful of the subject’s social, economic, political, cultural, and other personal conditions that result in their selection of occupations. The ability to reflect on policies and question “Are we discriminating against them on the basis of money?” “Have we overlooked something?” before a decision is set in motion could help avoid the creation of distressing impacts on the policy subjects.
Moustapha did praise the UK Government for providing social assistance during COVID-19 lockdown periods. “It is not enough, but better than nothing”, he said. But there is clearly more than money that should be looked after in how a policy protects people with vulnerable occupations.
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 02 — June 2022