“Surviving is not and should never be a crime”

Article and photos by Larice Schuurbiers

Selling bags, trainers and other cheap accessories to tourists on the streets is officially illegal in Spain, but in Barcelona, a few hundred manteros earn their living this way. These street vendors are often from migrant backgrounds, as the majority of manteros is from Senegal but also from Pakistan and India. Most of them are undocumented immigrants who came to Barcelona in search of a higher paying job and a better life. However, being a street vendor is not without risks, as they are constantly on the lookout for the police. Aziz Faye, a spokesperson for the street sellers Union Sindicato Popular De Vendedores Ambulantes de Barcelona says the work conditions of the street vendors is unfair, as the law prevents the manteros from earning a living.

In the Union’s office on the corner of Carrer de Picalquers, it is dark and stuffy. The cashier points to the unfinished ceiling and apologises for the lack of electricity. In the streets, there are no tourists in sight, which makes the shop feel deserted.  In the office, they sell clothing and accessories which are a part of the Union’s new legalized label. Creating the label called Top Manta was an attempt to better the situation of the street sellers. “We created a legal brand which eventually will be sold on the streets by the manteros, so they don’t have to worry about the police taking away their illegal products,” Aziz Fayé says.  Although the streets are still full of selfie sticks and fake Gucci bags instead of the legalized products, Aziz Fayé remains optimistic. Perhaps because he is working on bettering the conditions of the street vendors since 2015. He even organised multiple protests on the street, to evoke the government and local municipalities to do something about the work conditions. “Because of our protests starting in 2015, we have managed to evoke some change in the last two years. Documented immigrant street sellers have the opportunity to file for legalized permits to sell in the streets,” Aziz explains. However, it seems like the undocumented immigrants are being excluded from the measures, which means they still have to run when the police arrive to stop the vending.

Kamran, an undocumented street vendor from Pakistan

One of the street vendors on the lookout for the police is Kamran. Six months ago, he travelled from Pakistan to Italy and now he is five months in Barcelona, in need of a better paying job. On an average day, he makes around a 100-200 euros. It all depends on what he sells that day, as he buys his selling items from huge markets. Today he’s selling sunglasses and scarfs on the pavement of Arco de Triunfo.  “It’s hard to make money when you have to be careful all the time,” he says. “But after a while, you will get used to it. If the police arrive, I will just walk away and wait for five minutes until I come back again.”

In front of the Sagrada Familia, Joban Dhillon lays out souvenirs on the white blanket which marks his selling spot on the streets. He too is an undocumented immigrant from India, and came to Spain about two years ago. “In Barcelona, you have to wait at least three years to get legal papers,” he explains. “They won’t let you work before that. But we need money, so we sell on the streets.”

Joban Dhillon, an undocumented street seller from India

Manteros generally don’t pay taxes, are not in possession of legal permits and the majority is not registered, which makes their job illegal. Even though Joban is fully aware of the 65 euro fine he has to pay if he gets caught, he does not look worried. “I experience around six or seven police chases on a regular day,” Joban says. “But we work together, we have a couple of people in different streets on the lookout. We call each other whenever we hear or see the police coming, so we can pick up our stuff and walk away.”

Only ten minutes later, one of their friends informed Joban that policemen on horses were nearing them. All of the street sellers fold up their blankets full of items and try to blend into the crowd. “If you get caught and they give you a fine you cannot afford, they either take away your products or you will have to go to jail for some time,” Dhillon says after the police are gone. “It’s hard but we have no other choice.”

Street sellers packing up their products as their friend informed them the police is coming

Aziz Faye is still fighting for better compliance of the migrant’s human rights, and he hopes the new label will contribute to that. He is unsure about the future of undocumented immigrant street vendors as it is hard for the Union to keep track of everyone’s whereabouts and situations. There are roughly 400 street vendors in Barcelona, and as the majority are unregistered immigrants, which makes it more difficult to know everyone and to provide them with our help. Aziz thinks the situation of the street sellers working illegally as they wait for their migration papers, will only progress if the authority steps up. “The government needs to understand that undocumented people can’t stop selling their goods in the streets, as this will mean that they will stop to earn money, and that means to stop living. Surviving is not – and should never be a crime.”

Street seller on the corner of the entrance of Segrada Familia attraction
Manteros selling fake brand shoes and bags in the metrostation Catalunya
Tourists buying souvenir items at a street seller at the front of Segrada Familia
Tourists buying souvenir items at a street seller on the corner of Segrada Familia
People passing by street sellers in the metrostation Catalunya