For tourists, the street vendors in Rome can be a nuisance. For the vendors themselves, the often illegal peddling of mass-produced souvenirs is a way of survival for both themselves and their families back in Bangladesh, China or Senegal.
Walking around Rome, it is easy to spot the hundreds of people trying to sell selfie sticks, scarves and other kinds of curiosities to the throngs of tourists. The goods are identical, and a very large percentage of these are sold by men from either Senegal or Bangladesh.
As many native Italians themselves struggle to find employment in Italy, the many different newcomers and migrants in Italy is faced with numerous more hardships in comparison, with many of them trying to carve out a decent living and return money to their families back home, all the while living a life on the edge of legal society.
Where there are tourists, there are vendors
In Italy, the average level of poverty lies around 8,9 percent for Italians, while the poverty for non-natives lies around 28,6 percent, according to the latest data from ISTAT (Italian statistics). In Rome, the numerous Bangladeshi and Senegalese vendors are trying to make a living in the given circumstances.
While many Romans know of these people, and have their prejudice about the business they have, there are quite a lot of understanding for the vendors situation.
One that knows a lot about the vendors, and who meets them on a regular basis, is Laura Antonucci. She works as a guide in a cultural organisation, which shows tourists around Rome for free. By going on these tours regularly, she has seen and met many of the people and vendors of Rome.
“There used to be this older Jewish man at the beginning of my tour, who would sell books about Rome, and he would always ask me to tell my clients about his stand. He was a nice guy, so I would tell them about him and his store. I am quite kind to these people, but sometimes, especially around the Colosseum and the Vatican, they can be quite pushy – especially the rose vendors and the selfie-stick sellers, but I understand why. It’s not easy for them to earn enough for a decent living in this city,” Laura says.
Endless shops without customers
The word around town is that the vendors buy their goods from an area called “Vittorio Emanuele”. A large park sits firmly in the middle, surrounded by shops all around. The amount of Italian stores around this park can be counted on one hand. The overwhelming majority of stores are owned by either Bangladeshi or Chinese shop owners.
The goods sold within the stores, as well as the stores themselves, are seemingly identical as if someone copied a shop for either shoes, clothing and jewelry, and then pasted that shop into different lots around the street.
What is initially curious is that there are no customers at all in any of the Chinese shops. The store owners aren’t keen on speaking English, and those that are, refuse to talk about their businesses.
Online, there are many theories and claims on what the stops are used for, but Laura Antonucci has some helpful insight on the matter.
“They are empty because they are meant as showrooms. People can sample and see the goods, and then buy in huge bulks. Because they have the same in every store, I think they refill from each other,” she says, and continues:
“They can’t sell to shoppers on the street. If someone wants to buy from the stores, they’ll have to have a Partita Iva, a license to buy for business purposes. There are plenty of official sales done this way, but from what I know there are also plenty of people who buy from within the shops, illegally,” says Laura Antonucci.
The bottom at the top
One of the salesmen of these goods is Dulal Ahmad from Bangladesh, whom I find at Aventine hill, the tallest point in Rome, where numerous tourists arrive daily. There are almost no salesmen here, apart from Dulal who has a larger than average stand. He has lived and worked in Italy for eight years, and if he could do so tomorrow, he would get as far away as possible from Italy.
“It’s a tough life for many Bangladeshis here. No jobs, some work, but not much. I would prefer to work somewhere else than here. It’s too hot here. No future,” he says. His English isn’t very good. He repeats his usual sale pitch to some passing tourists, who look at his goods with disinterest.
“I can sell my goods legally here,” he says, and shows his green cards and other legal documents, issued by the government.
“But I have applied to get a dual green card for another EU country, and I am expecting to hear from them soon. My father works in Germany, and I would like to get there to work. There are better conditions for the workers living there, I have heard. We can perhaps sell for 25 Euros a day,” Dulal says.
As many other Bangladeshis, Dulal is in Europe for more than just his own survival. He lives with his mother and one son, to save expenses, and as most of the vendors in Rome, he sends money back to his family in Bangladesh.
“Next time, I’ll get to another country. It’s too hot here. Italy is very bad. No business. No job,” he mutters to himself, before turning his attention back to the tourists passing by his stand.
A matter of state survival
Italy is home to five million foreign nationals from different parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, which is incredibly clear in areas such as Vittorio Emanuele. A lot of money flows from these people out to the rest of the world, as the total amount remitted from Italy to the rest of the world of 9,85 billion Euro, according to the latest numbers from the World Bank.
This is a noticeable decline from the time before the Financial crisis, where the amount was at 12,7 billion.
Statistics from the World Bank also show that Bangladesh annually receives 154,6 million Euro from Italy, Senegal receive 259,7 million Euro and Chinese families receives 1,03 billion.
From all over the world, Senegal receives 1,45 billion Euro in remittances, which is around 10 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while Bangladesh receives 13,25 billion Euro, accounting for 8,7 percent of its GDP.
With almost a tenth of the two countries economy coming from the men and women living abroad, it becomes quite clear why there are people willing to put themselves in such bad working conditions in order to make a living. A lot more people than themselves depend on it.
And as more and more people send money abroad, the focus on the term “remittance”, which means sending money over long distances, has never been larger.
This is something that the World Bank is well aware of. The huge global organisation is working towards improving the availability of remittances for many of the migrants living around the world, says Hanspeter Wyss, Senior Program Officer for Migration and Remittances at the World Bank.
“The importance of remittances for many developing countries must not be underestimated. Last year, an amount of 380 billion Euro were remitted from country to country, and that’s only through official channels. The unregistered amount is likely the same amount as the registered ones,” he says, and continues:
“Remittances are mainly used for consumption and on the direct needs of the families; food, water and the bare necessities needed for the families to make a living. For some families, it is used to begin small businesses or expand on those already existing. And in many developing countries, remittances are a necessity for the economy, ranging from 10 – 40 percent of numerous countries’ entire GDP,” Mr. Wyss says.
Billions lost on the way to their destination
Italy actually provides some of the best rates for the migrants within Italy to transfer money back home. The remittance rate in banks have gone from 10 percent of the sent value in 2009, to half of that number in 2015, to 5,18 percent of the transferred money.
Italy did so, following the Italian presidency of the Great eight (G8) summit of 2009, and has become a frontrunner in lowering remittance rates within Europe and the rest of the economically strong members of both the G8 and G20. As such, Italy helps keeping remittance rates low, and helping the migrants transfer means and funds to their families, says Hanspeter Wyss.
“The average cost of sending money through the official channels are at an average 7,4 percent worldwide, but the world community aims to lower that to less than 3 percent, as defined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And for a poor family, losing 8 percent of a low amount is something that really can be felt on the personal economy,” he says.
“There is a global commitment to lower that percentage, as agreed between the EU and the African Union at the Valletta Summit in November 2015. However, some governments do not promote the transfer of remittances, as they think that remittances can help fund terrorism. The consequence of this, for example, is seen in Somalia’s case, which is almost impossible to send money to, as some governments will fine and prevent any companies and banks from doing so,” he says, and continues:
“But that’s not the case with remittances. In average, the amount sent is between 200 Euro and rarely sent. If someone were to send amounts numbering in the thousands, or in short succession, it will be easily noticeable through the official channels. That’s why it’s important to make it easier to transfer the money, without having lots of restrictions. The easier and cheaper it is, the more the foreign nationals will use those legal channels,” Hanspeter Wyss says.
A trade that keeps on going and growing
Since the 1970s, street vendors have mockingly been called “Vucumprá”, because of the vendors failed pronunciation of “vuoi comprare?”, meaning “would you like to buy”. And the amount of people willing to buy goods similar to those sold by Dulal Ahmad has been on the rise the last many years.
While there have been taken steps to improve the transfer of funds for the street vendors, there isn’t much happening to improve their situation on the street.
“Remittances have been growing steadily during the last 20 years. I expect that the amount will continue to rise; the cost of sending will go down, in combination with new technology making money transfers easier, and as the number of migrants increase, so will the amount of money sent back to the family back home,” ends Hanspeter Wyss.
One major barrier for this though, and especially in Italy, is that the work undertaken by the migrants is still very much illegal. This is something that Italy can and should help to improve, says Laura Antonucci.
“There will always be people who will try to sell their goods illegally, but Rome should try and do something about it. Getting a license to be a legal street vendor is already really hard,” she says, and continues:
“The government should put up some general rules in regards to selling things on the street. Tourists have always needed a drink, or wanted to take a picture with a silly gladiator or buy some cheap goods, just don’t make all of it illegal. Put some rules up on, what the vendors can and cannot do, and end this constant illegalisation of vendors on the street. It isn’t making things easier for the migrants in Rome who are trying to make a living,” she ends.
The old saying, “all roads leads to Rome” still has a lot of merit. People from all over the world have found their way to this ancient city, in the hopes of providing for themselves and their families. There might be easier times ahead, if they want to support those at home.
The roads leading towards Rome does, after all, go back to places all over the world.