Women Traders of the Caribbean

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Women Traders of the Caribbean

Women's market trading activity has a long history in the Caribbean. It began in the earliest days of slavery and remains strong in the present. Anthropologists and historians conclude that this practice is a cultural inheritance from West Africa, brought to the Americas by the enslaved black population. Black women first entered the internal market as hawkers and peddlers for their owners. Eventually, they began to sell for themselves. Higglers, as they became known, sold the surplus of their provision grounds and house gardens (plots of land on which they cultivated their aliments). After emancipation, this practice became rampant with the development of a tradition of small farming, and the distribution of agricultural produce became predominantly women's work. On smaller islands in the eastern part of the region, women have dominated inter-island trade. In St. Lucia, for example, they are known as speculators. They operate on a small scale, traveling to neighboring islands to purchase both local and imported goods. They sell at different points before returning home with other consumer items.

During the late 1970s, in Jamaica, a new type of independent trader emerged as a result of shortages due to the global economic crisis, United Statessupported confrontations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and nationally imposed trade restrictions on imports. The ruling People's National Party (PNP) sought to boost local industry and lessen the island's dependence on foreign-made products (such as shoes, bags, canned goods, and alcoholic beverages), which they referred to as "felt needs." Originally known as "suitcase traders" or "foreign higglers," these traders began as importers/exporters of these items that were absent on local shelves. They traveled throughout the Caribbean as well as North and South America where they exported Jamaican products such as music, canned goods, and arts and crafts to earn foreign exchange. Then they purchased goods (e.g., plastics, haberdashery, food items as well as clothing and other dry goods) unavailable in Jamaica, which they sold both wholesale and retail. Without spaces to conduct their activities, they squatted in front of stores, on streets of commercial areas to attract customers. Without any overhead, they sold their items more cheaply than established merchants. In many instances, they became fierce competitors with established businesses. In the early 1980s, the Jamaican government implemented a series of policies to regulate this activity. Traders were required to register with the United Vendors Association (UVA), carry identity cards, and had limited access to foreign exchange. Prior to that, they purchased dollars on the parallel market. In addition, they were officially titled Informal Commercial Importers (ICIs), which distinguished them from higglers. Lastly, special arcades were built to accommodate a significant number of them.

ICIs, like their counterparts throughout the region, abide by some guidelines and find creative ways to circumvent others. Most of their businesses are small in scale with a few employees, who are often extended family members. They use formal and informal networks to facilitate various aspects of their businesses from their buying trips abroad to the bureaucratic process of declaring goods at customs. While traditional market traders are primarily lower-classed individuals, independent importers exist across the class structure. For example, in Barbados, Dominican Republic, and Martinique, professional womensuch as stewardesses, informatics agents, bank tellers, and university lecturersalso engage in this business as a sideline to supplement their income. These importers tend to travel infrequently and purchase specific goods for their customers, depending on their destinations. They sell their wares at home or other private settings, which renders them invisible to the state.

Little has changed in terms of social attitudes toward traders since their emergence during slavery. They are

often stereotyped as tricksters and greedy individuals who overcharge for their products. While several among them may control the market on certain items and can therefore charge what the traffic will bear, not all traders share this position. The location of their operations, how competitive the market is, and the scale of their holdings all contribute to the extent of their profit margins. What is definitive about women traders of the region is that they are capitalists who play a role in the global market at multiple levels. For that reason, in many instances, traders are tolerated. Indeed, consumers benefit from the goods they provide, though they remain a nuisance to governments, established merchants, and civil societies. The state usually regards them as a drain on local economy because they take hard currency out of the country and flood the market with imports. Social attitudes toward them tend to be negative. Also, because many import secondary products, they are viewed by the upper classes as contributors to the destruction of local taste. Initially, a notable number of traders fared extremely well and made significant profits. Rumors of their success stories still draw new recruits today. As a result, the market has become saturated, and this activity is no longer as profitable for most participants as it was during the 1980s.

While the surge in independent international trading occurred throughout the Caribbean region, it was most notable in Jamaica, Haiti, and Guyana. The numerative effect that informal traders have had on their national economies remains unclear. Without doubt, however, their impact is significant as their visibility on city streets and country roads attests. The extent of their contribution is hard to determine for multiple reasons. First, traders hardly report their full earnings to governments to avoid full taxation that disregards their periods of losses. Second, outside of regulation, they are rarely recognized by the state. They are often the backbone of nontourist-based economies as they provide employment, sustain households, and reproduce labor power. In addition, they supply goods to the poor at more affordable prices. Third, because independent traders link "formal" and "informal" sectors of the economy, the lines that demarcate legality are blurred. Hence, even existing statistics are inaccurate, due to these clandestine elements. Throughout the region informal economies contribute substantially to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). More specifically, it is estimated that in the year 1999, for example, informal economy accounted for 35 percent of Jamaica's GDP, 60 percent of Haiti's, and 10 percent of the GDP of Trinidad and Tobago.

Their impact on the global economy is more complex. On smaller islands, they are single-handedly responsible for the flow of goods that traverse the region, especially to remote areas without big businesses. Because of their import/export activities, they are directly involved in the circulation of the capital integral to globalization.

Historically, the gender of this trade is not solely a cultural phenomenon, but an economic one as well. It is most common among single-income, female-headed households. Women often turn to this profession when unemployment is high and the state fails to provide them with a social welfare net. For most of these participants, independent trading has become another low-income occupation. Women choose trading despite these shortcomings. Compared to other jobs such as free-trade-zone factory work or housekeeping, trading allows women not only to earn an income but to have considerable autonomy over their daily lives. They often emphasize that they choose this particular occupation because they want to be their own boss.

See also Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM); Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship; Natural Resources of the Caribbean


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gina ulysse (2005)

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Women Traders of the Caribbean

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Women Traders of the Caribbean