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Jomo Thomas is quite correct to assert that, “No one goes into a building with produce unless there is a magnet that pulls potential shoppers into the structure. The attempt failed in the Kingstown market, and it is doomed to failure when these structures are opened to vendors” in a recent newspaper column outlining his interpretation of class conflict in SVG.
The Kingstown Central Market, better known by its pejorative but accurate nickname, “Mussolini’s Tomb,” was completed by the James F. Mitchell NDP government during the 1990s. Dark, dank, poorly laid out, and physically unappealing both inside and out, it is truly our monstrous national exemplar of the many foolish projects during the Mitchell regime, some of the others being the scandal-ridden Ottley Hall marina and shipyard, the useless traffic lights in Kingstown, the derelict Bequia airport, the crime-ridden Little Tokyo rum shops and needless bus terminal, the Financial Complex eyesore, the cruise ship terminal, a project that should have been built in Bequia instead where it would have attracted many more vessels, and the failed Union island marina.
How could a huge two-story complex like the Central Market (the second floor of which is now vacant and has always been nearly unoccupied) have ever been conceived without lots of adjacent parking?
No wonder most ordinary vendors and shoppers avoid it like the plague.
The original largely open-air market house it displaced could easily have been upgraded for a few million dollars and the space occupied by the Tomb converted into an urban park or multi-story vehicle parkade.
Historically speaking, then, Sir James, not Ralph Gonsalves, is the patron saint of our current out of control street vending cancer.
Jomo Thomas is also correct to assert that, there is in our country an “… inalienable right of citizens to make a decent living, by utilizing their own mind and sweat” but fails to mention that such a living is necessarily circumscribed by the Constitution and its associated laws. That is why many ways of earning a living – prostitution, drug dealing, selling liquor without a license, hunting or fishing out of season, child labour, etc. – are prohibited by law.
It is this central omission which implies that this “inalienable right of citizens” allows any entrepreneur to do as she likes, the law and the rights of other citizens and the welfare of the entire country be damned, that is the fatal flaw in his editorial.
Concerning “inalienable right,” Jomo Thomas mentions not a word about the illegal nature of this street trade or the fact that the government has a right, based on Section 6 the Constitution and the laws it sustains, to remove these informal sector vendors. Neither does he show any interest in the fact that the street vending of unprocessed food and beer is not in the public interest when it is used as a front for the sale of illegal drugs like marijuana and cocaine, as is often the case.
Nor does the unsightly and unhygienic nature of this street trade concern him in the least. Not a word from him also that all of our regional neighbours have long prohibited such unregulated trade based on laws almost exactly like our own or that it represents unfair competition with legal tax-generating businesses selling identical produce.
The welfare and other interests of other sectors of the general public are of no concern to Jomo Thomas in this extra-legal and one-sided interpretation of inalienable rights. The inflammatory title of this piece itself, “Sledging the Poor, Defending the Powerful,” promotes a false interclass conflict when this issue involves people mainly occupying the same or similar socio-economic class positions.
This is because most of the people physically inconvenienced and economically destroyed by this illegal squatting of vendors are mainly other poor people forced off the sidewalks of Kingstown into the dangerous roads and drains as well as potential workers in formal, tax-paying businesses, many of them young women looking for their first job, who are denied employment because of unfair competition from unlicensed and untaxed vendors who ply their trade in peoples’ faces at the entrance of legitimate business places where their illegal efforts deny these women any chance of lawful employment.
Much of the produce sold by these vendors are also the fruit of “praedial larceny” (theft of agricultural crops). Indeed, they actually are an incentive for such illegal behaviour. Conversely, legal supermarkets and grocery stores are generally careful to buy their fruits and vegetables from law-abiding established growers.
Not only raw farm produce is sold by unregulated vendors. But Jomo Thomas’s assertion that some vendors, “… depend on friends and family abroad to send basic foodstuff, personal hygiene products as well as clothing, which they spin into a small profit” deliberately obscures the fact that these products are all imported during the Christmas duty-free concession period, a government programme originally established to help poor people with their basic needs for food, clothing, and household items during the joyous holiday season.
The fact is that this concession has been corrupted by the illegal import of unlimited numbers of barrels by the same individuals using friends and relatives as fronts. Untaxed, the contents of these barrels are illegally sold year-round by informal vendors, many of them middle-class people selling the produce from the back of their expensive vehicles, to the detriment of legally established businesses and their shrinking force of low-paid, mainly young female employees. The result is the “sledging” of the livelihood prospects of the poor – to use Jomo Thomas’s words – by rapacious members of our society.
In short, “… [P]oor people trying to make a decent and honest living,” as Jomo Thomas opines, is a parody of much of what is actually taking place on the streets of Kingstown and elsewhere.
As for his assertion that, “… to frequently assault the poor, send police to confiscate their products, beating and arresting some in the process are uncalled for and callous” wilfully misrepresents the fact that these “assaults” are very rare which is why this chaotic street trade has been allowed to fester and spread like cancer over the past 30 plus years.
Unfortunately, like terminal cancer itself, this social cancer is too far gone to cure.