“During the pandemic, there were days when we didn’t earn at all. When the [truck] rakers [used by state authorities for street clearances] caught us by surprise, they would confiscate all our goods. We lost our livelihood; we lost our daily source of income”.
This statement is from Malaya, a street vendor, when asked about working conditions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Metropolitan Manila.
Malaya (not her real name) is one of the many informal workers who earn their livelihoods from precarious daily-waged activities such as street vending, home-based trading and informal transport operation including rickshaws.
In addition, the Philippine government framed the pandemic as a security issue, resorting to violent policing. In early April 2020, 21 residents of an urban poor settlement were detained for voicing discontent and seeking aid to tackle hunger.
Instances of local officials imprisoning quarantine violators in dog cages and coffins have surfaced from many villages, and human rights abuses have been recorded.
Research and solidarity in times of crisis
To highlight the fundamental relationship between civic space and livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic, our team at the University of Melbourne’s Informal Urbanism Research Hub (InfUr) collaborated with the Metro Manila Vendors’ Alliance (MMVA), Save San Roque Alliance (SSR) and other grassroots organisations in Metro Manila in implementing an advocacy and research project.
A key aspect of the project dubbed “Civic Space, Livelihoods and Post-pandemic Recovery in Manila” was the formation of a rights-based Quick Response Team (QRT) to document and address political harassment, clearing operations against street vendors and informal transport drivers and demolition of informal housing units.
The team was composed of grassroots leaders, academic researchers, NGO representatives, and government officials who champion the human rights of the urban poor.
Collaboration and immediate results
One of the project’s major outcomes was the inoculation of about 2,000 street vendors and urban poor residents. This was a response to the low COVID-19 vaccination rate in the Philippines.
The vaccination drive was made possible by the longstanding relationship between the MMVA and the local government of Quezon City (a component city of Metropolitan Manila).
The project also helped the MMVA negotiate for the issuance of the Hawkers’ Holiday (Christmas) Moratorium, an agreement that suspended clearing operations against street vendors between November 5, 2021, and January 15, 2022.
In Sitio San Roque, an urban poor settlement with about 30,000 inhabitants, the project’s partners launched campaign activities (including an open letter and official dialogue) to help stop the spate of violent and arbitrary clearing operations against pedicab (non-motorised rickshaw) drivers.
In October 2021, a grassroots dialogue with the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) led to a recovery of two confiscated pedicab units and clarification of the legal process on how to retrieve confiscated ‘kariton’ (wagon used for vending or scavenging) and pedicab units.
A moratorium was also agreed on clearing operations until the end of December 2021.
To help consolidate the ranks of pedicab drivers and ‘kariton’ owners, the project’s QRT conducted a human rights education workshop in collaboration with the Commission on Human Rights, an independent constitutional government body with the primary function of investigating human rights violations in the Philippines.
The project’s resources were also mobilised to support community groups in San Roque as they engaged in formal dialogues with the Quezon City government about their decades-old housing problem.
San Roque residents have long been locked in a struggle against a state-led eviction process pursued through coercion, community fragmentation, surveillance and intimidation.
These dialogues were accompanied by protest actions to amplify the importance of civic space in their struggle for affordable housing for the poor.
Sustaining gains, pursuing just recovery
Building on the gains from this international collaboration, the research consortium led by the University’s InfUr Hub is now implementing an expanded multi-stakeholder project “Tindig Maralita: Consolidating gains, pursuing just recovery with the poor”.
One of our ongoing activities is a series of community and sectoral consultations on the pandemic recovery agenda.
This series of discussions aims to ensure that recovery strategies will address the livelihood needs of the urban poor, involve informal worker associations in planning processes and uphold their human rights.
We are also conducting new rounds of training and capacity-building with community leaders and vendor groups on civil, political, economic, and socio-cultural rights.
However, while we plan ahead, our focus must also be maintained on the continuing grassroots issues including fencing and demolition in San Roque, and clearing operations against street vendors and pedicab drivers.
An urban poor leader decries their current situation:
“The personnel [of real estate developers] are treating us like pigs. They fence off our dwelling spaces, which has harmful effects on our living conditions. We are human! We need affordable and decent housing, not sustained harassment.”
Our action-focused research frames the national issues and local demands of the poor as inherently embedded in their struggle for urban belonging and the realisation of human rights.
In the context of the (still ongoing) COVID-19 global pandemic, asserting human rights means we must focus on the health and livelihood issues of the poor while ensuring they can take part in state-led processes to develop or implement inclusive pandemic recovery agenda.
Defending human rights also entails safeguarding the civic space that enables political dissent and grassroots collective action to thrive.
Banner: A pedicab driver recovering his confiscated vehicle after a dialogue with state officials/ Supplied.