Georgia condemns street vendors to a life of poverty

Georgia's attempts to clean up its towns are leaving street-traders in the gutter. Authorities say they flout health standards and have banned them from selling, so vendors are being abandoned to a life of poverty.

Ketevan Zurabishvili lost her only source of income when a new ban on street selling came into effect in Tbilisi.

“Two months ago we were told to get off the streets, unceremoniously, and without prior warning,” says former street vendor and now unemployed Zurabishvili. “They said a new law was coming into force, and we’re not allowed to trade in the street any longer. They didn’t offer any jobs or alternative sites in exchange.”

Ketevan was widowed ten years ago. She raised her three daughters and nephew on her own but says she has never felt this desperate and helpless. One of her daughters, Tamuna, has cerebral palsy and now is the sole provider for her mother, who is now forced to rely on Tamuna’s social benefits to make ends meet.

The city authorities say they had the public’s best interests in mind when they passed the ban on street vending.

“The interests of street vendors are very important, but we cannot act in their interest alone by ignoring other people’s needs,” Koki Ionatamishvili, City Assembly Member, explained. “Many of the people who lived in buildings near these vendors complained about the bad smell. A lot of these vendors sold highly-perishable goods, and didn’t follow hygiene procedures.”

The daily rent for a stall at a market is just under US$3 a day. This may sound low to Westerners, but for many Georgians, it is still too expensive.

There are more than 6,000 empty spaces at Tbilisi’s markets. The city’s mayor wants street vendors to move off the streets and into the markets, but the sellers say they have no money to pay the market fees. They say the city government is simply obsessed with putting up a pretty façade, while they and their families are forced to go hungry.