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Unintended World Cup Legacy: Prompting Illegal Street Vendors To

Street vendors pushed yellow carts up and down Paulista Avenue in the banking district of Brazil’s largest city, laden with corn-on-the-cob steaming in pots of water. For $2.50, the vendors shaved the kernels onto a styrofoam plate, smothered the dish in melted margarine and dusted it with salt for hungry patrons.

It’s a culinary tradition that normally attracts white-collar commuters and retail workers. Now that the World Cup is in full swing, the vendors are serving lots of tourists, too. Business has never been better, unless the vendors get nabbed by the police, who treat such vending as a crime and seize whatever food or drinks they’re selling as contraband.

The World Cup has brought the disparity between Brazil's informal and formal economies to the fore, sparking protests and galvanizing the labor movement in hopes of legitimizing business enterprises embraced by the public yet technically outlawed.

“If you’re illegal and [the police] catch you, they take everything,” Valdina Andrade de Silva, a temporarily legal drink vendor working in the city center, said. Valdina, who is also labor organizer, is among an estimated 1,000 workers who have received special permits to sell drinks during the World Cup, and on Monday she hawked her goods as Brazil geared up to play Cameroon. Aside from the hundreds of fans in yellow jerseys who passed by, she was surrounded by a dozen other vendors wearing red bibs marked “official vendor.”

Human rights and labor groups have protested the World Cup for a variety of reasons, including its displacement of local workers, increasing sexual tourism and the gentrification of neighborhoods around the 12 host cities. But with small gains among vendors, Valdina hopes to secure permanent improvements in the way they do business. Her hope is that labor reform and regularization of informal workers will be among the legacies of the 2014 World Cup. 

For now, “It’s a relief to be legal,” Valdina said as she lugged her icebox-laden dolly across the uneven stone street that encircles the FIFA-sponsored Fan Fest, a semi-public viewing area with a giant screen. A street vendor for more than 30 years, Valdina said she wants her work to be legalized after the Cup. Though street vending is not respected as a legitimate profession, she said, "these people are family people, supporting households. Many mobile vendors are immigrants, low-income people — the type of people that need quick cash.”