A former factory worker, Pov Chandary, 30, is now a street vendor and her husband is a tuk-tuk driver – their jobs are usually referred to as “informal”, because they are not regulated and protected by law and the state.

Chandary, a mother of two, could see the differences and recalled the benefits that she, as a formal worker, used to be entitled to from the social protection schemes available to her, including healthcare, sickness and employment injury benefits, maternity leave and compensatory allowance. She wants to see street vendors and other informal economy workers enjoy the same benefits.

In Cambodia, a street vendor like Chandary faces significant challenges, including income insecurity, poor sanitation, lack of social protection benefits, and different forms of harassment and discrimination.

Street vendors receive limited legal protection from labour rights, face poor working conditions, are unable to receive state-level support for formal training and education, and are less likely to secure loan assistance to expand their businesses.

Sometimes, they are harassed by house owners, police or local authorities to leave their selling space. The hit of the global Covid-19 pandemic has added another layer to their existing hardship, making them more vulnerable and exposed to health, socio-economic risks and uncertainties.

In addition to the absence of income security and safety, street vendors are not registered in the national social security system and are not recorded in the official data collection, and their contribution to the economy is underestimated and often excluded, which leads to limited representation and policies options to address their needs and improve their situation.

The hardship Chandary experienced is neither new nor exceptional in Cambodia, but the situation remains unchanged and has even worsened in the wake of the pandemic.

If we look closer, street vendors are the ‘invisible’ entrepreneurs – unfortunately without protection nor recognition despite their huge contributions to the local and national economic development, including paying taxes. Street businesses, managed by street vendors – majority of whom are women – provide millions of citizens, in low middle-income countries like Cambodia, more affordable food and goods in public places, primarily streets, pavements and sidewalks. They move from place to place to trade their products and goods conveniently, saving many people’s busy time to go to markets. Street vendors evidently absorb labour force into the urban economy and help reduce risky migration.

Despite their contribution, in many lower-middle-income countries, effective social protection provision remains a key challenge, as many are excluded from social protection system.

We can find street vendors in every city and capital of the world, especially in Asia. Cambodia has perhaps one of the largest presences of street vendors in the region. Approximately, about 62,780 (3.8 per cent) Street Business (Vendors) of the 1,673,390 registered persons engaged in different forms of business (NIS/EC2011). About 16,419 (one per cent) are based in Phnom Penh, and 75 per cent are women.

The International Street Vendors Day is proof that street vendors are gaining visibility and this is an opportunity for Cambodia to lead the way in recognising and protecting street vendors in the region.

This year, on the 9th International Street Vendors Day, Oxfam, together with the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA) and other stakeholders, jointly celebrated this occasion to mark the importance of street vendors in social inclusion and their contribution to national economic development.

Let’s use this opportunity to advocate for a more inclusive understanding of informal economy workers, greater recognition of the social and economic needs of the street vendors and their continuous contributions to Cambodian society.

Like other types of labourers, street vendors share equal value and deserve to enjoy equal rights and access to the social protection provisions and freedom of association so that they too can enjoy the same benefits as other formal workers in Cambodia.

Instead of washing them away from the street, Cambodia should provide them with access to social protection schemes including health insurance, access to affordable childcare services, provision of proper locations for street business and clean working places, access to affordable financial services, and information on public health and food safety.

We envision a society that leaves no one behind. Cambodia has set its goal toward an equal, equitable and inclusive society. However, this will only happen when we clearly commit to more inclusive, equitable social protection policies and practices for every Cambodian citizen.

Oxfam and partners stand ready to work closely with the government to make social protection goals a reality so that street vendors like Chandary could once again access the protection benefits she once had. We will continue collaborating with other key development partners to make this a reality.

Sophoan Phean is Oxfam country director. She is a Cambodian who possesses rich international experience and networks. She is also Oxfam’s Gender Justice Lead. Like many women of her generation, she was born and raised during wartime, poverty, and in a patriarchal society, experiences that strengthen her commitment to gender and social justice.