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Begging to Work
By Phil Doyle
You see them on street corners everywhere in the City, recognised as people trying to get themselves out of a rut; but Big Issue Vendors in Melbourne have discovered that their bosses are, well, just like any other boss.
The Big Issue magazine, based on a British idea of helping the unemployed and homeless help themselves, has been published in this country since 1996. It is effectively piecework, with the Vendors having to pay half the cover price up front before they can sell any copies of the magazine. The Vendors also pay for their uniforms (caps and vest) and receive training for their job.
"We haven't had a proper place we can sit down, nowhere to wash our hands. We are out in all sorts of weather," says vendor and activist Peter During. "In June and July it gets cold, the seats are covered in water. It's a fine way of catching the 'flu."
Management had introduced toilets, but according to During they were closed after someone got jabbed with a syringe. Although this policy has now changed, During claims he found access to this most basic of facilities difficult.
"Each time I wanted to go [to the office toilet] it was closed to the Vendors," says During. "We are treated like second-class citizens."
Staff may have access to a kitchen, but not vendors, who also have seen slow progress on getting Big Issue Management to address their problems.
During remains quite clear about what the Vendor's immediate needs are; access to a toilet and a room to have a drink off the street, lockers to store Vendor's coats, bags, and a key to their locker for their own security. Security is an issue. Theft of magazines and money is common enough to be a concern for Vendors, many of who are not in a great position to defend themselves.
The magazine has a paid 'Vendor Support Team' in each of the cities where it is on sale. The Vendor Support Team is meant to supervise the Vendors when they are out on their 'pitches', but During claims this happens all too infrequently. Other Vendors have expressed concerns with the way the magazine is run and how Vendors are treated, but were reluctant to be identified.
During has been a Big Issue Vendor on the streets of Melbourne for nearly five years. Prior to that he worked for the tramways doing track repair and cleaning.
Big Issue management claim they are limited in what they can do because of the magazine's financial position, and because the premises in the Melbourne office are provided rent-free by the Wesley Church.
Big Issue manager Bill Manallack stressed to them that there is no exploitation of vendors - that they are in the business of trying to assist them, but that there are some difficulties. Unfortunately, Manallack was not able to offer any solutions to the problems identified by the vendors.
According to Manallack, who has been with the Big Issue since June 2000, the publication is not financially viable, with The Body Shop making up the funding shortfall. They also receive support in kind; for example the Melbourne City Council has waived the fees for the licences the Vendors would normally require, and the Wesley Central Mission provides limited office space rent free in Lonsdale Street in Melbourne. There is also advertising revenue, notably from Australia Post. Despite a circulation of up to 15,000 per fortnight, management estimate that the Big Issue needs to sell 25,000 to break even.
But the story has a happy ending of sorts. The Vendors formed a union to improve their conditions after they felt Big Issue Management was ignoring their grievances. After a long struggle they have managed to get some of the basic amenities that most people would take for granted, such as access to a toilet.
The vendors have let the Victorian Trades Hall Council know of their concerns. The VTHC has offered to see if they can meet with vendors and management to resolve the issue.
Despite his active concern for his fellow Vendors and frustrations with the way he has been treated, During continues to sell his Big Issues on the corner of Swanston and Bourke Streets in the heart of Melbourne. This is one of the ways, along with recycling cans and bottles, which brings his pension to something approaching the poverty line.
There are thousands of Peter During's in this country; invisible in a country where egalitarianism was privatised a long time ago. But not all of them are taking it quietly, and it is the response of people like Peter During and his fellow members of the Vendors Union at the Big Issue that gives us all a little bit of hope - and a worthy cause like the Big Issue could treat its vendors with a bit more dignity.
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