Self Employment in the DTES
LEDlab student Priyanka Roy explores issues regarding self employment and reframing the informal economy in her Masters in Science (Planning) capstone project for UBC. Priyanka has always been deeply interested in working with communities. She has prior experience working as a social planner at the municipal level and has also worked with several non-profits based in the DTES.
While working in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) over the last eight months, I’ve become more aware of entrepreneurial capacities from the various communities living and working here. The range of individuals that are precariously self-employed can be seen selling flowers, cleaning sidewalks for donations, making artwork, selling second-hand goods, selling food items such as Bannock, washing and cleaning cars, and doing other odd jobs. Generally, these individuals are poorly compensated for their time as it’s not considered to be a formal work. Many are living below the poverty line and depend on the Income Assistance system, whose rates have stagnated since 2007. Many face multiple barriers to formal employment such as needing a skills update for available employment or precarious housing. In the absence of adequate economic and social supports, individuals struggling often find themselves in situations where they have to do what they can to survive. The jobs that become easily available to them are mostly informal and utilize low or unrecognized skills, offering some relief to their situation.
Local governments primarily intesect with informally self-employed citizens in the context of by-laws, often through enforcing regulations. This approach is based on the deep-rooted restrictive view of the informal economy being a “problem” that needs to be eradicated. There is a history of marginalizing the informal economy through various municipal bylaws.
Recently, however, the City of Vancouver’s Healthy City Strategy includes the ambitious projection of reducing “the city’s poverty rate by 75%.” The report mentions the DTES Street Market in its comprehensive approach section and recognizes the lack of coordination in its current policy response to poverty in the DTES. Marginalization of the informal workforce is acknowledged in the official DTES Local Area Plan which recommends the creation of “employment (especially low-barrier jobs) through inclusive social impact hiring and local employment opportunities.” Considering the particular vulnerabilities of the informal economy participants, this move towards creating comprehensive policies recognizes the informal workers contribution, and symbolizes a radical step toward a social economy.
The barriers to formalization for street vendors
The City of Vancouver encourages street vending of non-food items, which includes original artwork, handcrafts, jewelry, flowers, and other approved items. This improves street life, help bring people together, and provide public convenience. The City uses a lottery system to award new permits to non-food stationary street vendors. New applicants are accepted if locations are available for the current year. However, in 2016, no new permits were awarded as pre-existing permit holders had renewed their locations downtown.
The applicant fee of $51 per location and an annual application fee of $845 excluding GST is already unaffordable for many DTES street vendors, and the shortage of formal vending locations is detrimental to the purpose of the vending permits system used by the City.
Working for an organization versus being self-employed
Some organizations, such as Megaphone, manage to navigate the permit system allowing their vendors to sell magazines and calendars. The organization pays an annual $10 permit to the City of Vancouver which allows vendors to sell the magazine in most areas across the city. This is an encouraging sign that the city does make permits accessible on a case-by-case basis. However, the average self-employed DTES resident or street vendor might not have access to such information. The majority feel helpless about the by-laws and work around the system to forego paying legal fees.
Supporting the self-employed population and reducing barriers
Many people within this community have a real knack for business, creativity, and innovation, often tapping into an impressive reservoir of skills. Such potential can flourish if certain institutional obstacles can be removed. The informally self-employed could gradually transition to the formal economy if effective strategies and resources are put in place. One policy recommendation is annualization of welfare rates for all income assistance recipients, not just those with PWD or PPMB status.
Social enterprises such as the DTES Street Market, the Binners’ Project, and Megaphone help individuals navigate the system by providing guidance and information to their members. According to the individuals who run these innovative social enterprises, mistrust for the authority, lack of resources, and complicated by-laws prevent people from making well-informed choices. Information pertaining to different ways of getting official permits and legalizing work should be easily available to individuals. This would help with reducing the collective anxiety that many DTES residents feel while working in the informal economy. Support from the City to help individuals understand the system better and make exceptions accordingly would go a long way in creating a safer and resilient work environment for the self-employed workforce in the DTES.
I explore these issues and more in my capstone project for my Master of Science (Planning) degree at UBC. You can read the paper here or find it in the Research & Publications section of the LEDlab website.
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