Could cooperatives be the key to regularization for migrant street vendors in Barcelona?

Could cooperatives be the key to regularization for migrant street vendors in Barcelona?
Unions and cooperatives resemble some forms of the informal business organisation in countries like Senegal. Photo: Diomcoop
There is a place in the centre of Barcelona, ​​open-plan and full of T-shirts with anti-racist messages, where the most-heard language is not Spanish or Catalan, but Wolof, sprinkled with a few words of French. In another neighbourhood of the Catalan capital, the same language circulates among the occupants of an apartment, half-office, half-workshop.

These two places, small Senegalese parentheses in the heart of Barcelona, ​​are the headquarters of the Popular Union of Street Vendors (Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes in Spanish) and the Diomcoop cooperative, respectively. Two complementary projects that seek to facilitate the regularization of the migrant community who live without papers in the city under an immigration law that they consider abusive.

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

Anyone who has visited Barcelona will remember a common scene of the pre-Covid era: wide streets, crowded like rivers of noisy tourists and, on their banks, blankets spread on the ground, covered with products: small ephemeral shops, mostly run by sub-Saharan migrants. Colloquially called manteros (from the Spanish word for blanket, manta), many of these street vendors live without a residence or work permit and their only way forward is to sell on the street.

That was Lamine Bathily's daily routine for 12 years, after secretly leaving Senegal and taking a boat in 2007 to the Canary Islands, one of the most insecure and deadly migration routes. About to turn 17, he embarked with more determination than fear.

“I wanted the money to start helping my family, I am the oldest son at home and I knew that one day the responsibility would be mine,” he relates with the fluency of someone who has already told the same story many times. More than a decade later aged 32, he remembers that dangerous journey while sitting at the headquarters of the Union that he founded with his colleagues in 2015.

“We decided to organize this because we were living in the dark, in invisibility”, notes Bathily. It was a pioneering project that has already been replicated in other parts of the country such as the capital, Madrid.

The Union operates today as an association and has its own clothing brand, Top Manta (in reference to the informal name given to the street selling in the city), which allows them to obtain money to support their community.

On top of that, the association has become the voice of the manteros. With the money they get from their fashion brand and various grants they have obtained, they want to grow and thus be able to hire more and more colleagues from the street. This is important because one of the conditions set by Spanish law to obtain the papers is a full-time annual contract, impossible for most street sellers.


Photo: Diomcoop

A very restrictive law

“The law produces irregularity, it has a centrifugal force: even if you enter legally, halfway through, the legal requirements expel you,” says José Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer specializing in migration and human rights for the NGO Migra Studium. Ordóñez is talking about the complicated legal architecture that exists in Spain to get the papers.

In addition to the employment contract, the law requires migrants to demonstrate three years of residence in the country.

“But what am I supposed to do for those three years? Do I have to live on air? They tell you that you have to find a job to get the papers, but when you find it they tell you that they can't hire you because you don't have papers. It is like a snake biting its own tail”, explains Marie Faye, a Senegalese woman who arrived in Barcelona in 2012.

After studying law and political science in France, she had to drop out of university because her family could no longer bear the cost and thus lost her student visa. Since she had an aunt in Barcelona, she decided to enter Spain clandestinely.

“When you arrive, your own community knows that their opportunities are limited so they tell you that you only have two options: the blanket or doing braids on the beach,” she explains.

She tried braids first but the experience was awful, she says. “When [the police] caught you, they undressed you and groped you looking for hidden money. That was the limit for me”, she says. So she worked as a mantera for four years. But now, less than a decade later, she is the president of the Diomcoop, an unprecedented cooperative experience.

A cooperative as an alternative entry to the system

You could say that Diomcoop is a daughter to the Popular Union of Street Vendors and the Barcelona city council. From the dialogue between both and the struggle of the first, the idea of promoting a cooperative that could offer full-time annual contracts to street vendors was born.

It was not completely new: the previous municipal government launched five years ago a cooperative formed by migrants who earned a living collecting scrap metal. But that project eventually did not work. From that first experience, they learned that a project like this cannot work with too large a group of people, explains Álvaro Porro, commissioner for the social economy of the Barcelona city council.

Diomcoop could offer these contracts to people in an irregular situation thanks to the council’s technical and financial support.

“It all came from the idea that this cooperative will not initially be viable in any way and that is why it required a public money contribution through a subvention in order to start walking, through a covenant”, argues Porro.

However, hiring a person in an irregular situation can be much more difficult for a normal company because the process to obtain a work permit can take up to six months. On the other hand, “many companies do not want to regularize their migrant workers because then they don't have to register them in the social security system and they can pay lower wages”, Ordóñez warns.


Photo: Diomcoop

The cooperative has different areas of business, from a fashion brand with traditional fabrics to logistics or gastronomic services, explains Faye.

“The idea is that this cooperative becomes stronger business-wise and gains autonomy so that in the future it becomes totally independent,” says Álvaro Porro. In fact, while the financial subsidy from the city council represented 85 percent of Diomcoop funds in 2017, they expect it to be no more than 43 percent this year, according to data provided by Diomcoop itself.

With the administration’s support, the cooperative is getting closer and closer to the sustainability they expect to have achieved when the recently signed two-year agreement ends. The city council has also helped them find clients and given them visibility.

The profile of Diomcoop's workers is very varied, from some highly educated people like Faye to manual workers, but, according to the president, all have been able to contribute their skills to different branches of the business.

“They did not come empty-handed, they were already doing things in their African countries, it is something that can be used to contribute to society and the economy,” she explains.

During the selection process, to which some 80 people applied, a variety of profiles was sought in this regard, as well as in terms of gender: the proportion of women is higher in Diomcoop than in the manteros community more generally. The cultural origin of the workers was also taken into account. “Sometimes, from the Western perspective, they are all just seen only as street vendors, but they have different cultures, countries and languages,” stresses Porro.

Cooperativism was not unfamiliar to manteros since it resembles some forms of business informal organization back in Senegal. Instead, the hardest part of Diomcoop's day-to-day life is the bureaucracy and the technicalities. “These are things that you have to have basic notions of economics to understand, it would be difficult for anyone who does not have that basis,” explains Marie Faye.

A small but important change

The fundamental goal of the cooperative is to allow these people to regularize, train and enter the conventional labour market so that others can take their place and the wheel continues to turn.

Since its creation, up to 17 migrants have managed to regularize their situation through Diomcoop. The Union, on the other hand, has hired and regularized about five people as an association. In total, then, almost 25 people.

They may seem few compared to the set of manteros that work in the city. Although there is no official count, estimates range from 300 to 500, but this number may change during the year, because they come and go from the city.

According to Papalaye Seck, Bathily's colleague who joined the Union in 2018, “this is a very small but very important change.”

When he first came to Spain in 2006, Seck recalls, “it didn't matter if your leg was broken, if you fell while the police was chasing you… you had no place to report or make a complaint”. For Seck, the Union means the end of this silence.

In addition to the people hired by the association, some thirty migrants in an irregular situation collaborate with the Union by sewing on a voluntary basis. “We try to pay something equivalent to what they do. Surely it is not the same as working with a contract but we try to give them something that can serve them,” points out this former street vendor who now combines his work in the Union with another part-time job in an organic bakery.

On the other hand, Diomcoop 's work goes beyond business. “We do not only try to ensure that they can work with dignity, but also that they can live with dignity,” says Marie Faye.

With the benefits it makes, Diomcoop helps its partners, for instance, if they can’t pay rent. The cooperative also owns a flat handed over by an NGO and they use it to house its members or their families in case of need. The president affirms that “economic viability is as important as the human needs of the members who give everything to advance the cooperative”.

The direct impact of Diomcoop on the lives of these migrants, marginalized by the Spanish immigration law, is clear and valuable, but what could be the scope of a project like this?

Porro warns other city councils that might want to promote similar measures that “you need a very large capacity for dedication and money to support a project like this because then you can't stay halfway.”

Not all local administrations have the tools to sustain such a complex project. On the other hand, anti-racist organizations from Barcelona consider that an initiative like Diomcoop is not enough. “All these projects in the end are temporary and very short solutions because they are applied to a small group of people, the problem is not being approached in a structural way,” says Gemma Ferreon, from SOS Racismo.

For all this, Lamine Bathily and his colleagues are committed to the Union’s struggle for the long-term, for the following generations. “If we fail to defeat the immigration law today, we will do so tomorrow,” he affirms forcefully.

Lucía Blanco Gracia is a journalist and writer. Born and raised in Barcelona, her nomadic nature took her to Nairobi, where she now works with the Spanish news agency, Efe. Mostly interested and human rights, gender, culture, and how they are traversed by privilege.


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