Europe’s hidden middle men

Lately I’ve been taking a closer look at a curious citizen (or often not) of the European landscape: The street hawker. My first encounter with them was some years ago in Paris. Many many hawkers could be found around the Eiffel tower, selling small plastic LED-lit models of the tower. But here’s the interesting thing: They’re all selling the exact same stuff. Exactly the same. This is rather contrary to standard business practice, where, ideally, you’d rather not be selling the same stuff as the guy next door. It’s not as if no-one has ever noticed this, more likely, is not asking why. By the looks of it, this is not a free market.

Handbags for sale

Recently, on a trip to Venice, I encounter these hawkers again for the ‘I-don’t-kn0w-how-many-ith’ time, but this time there’s something different. Amongst the Sub-Saharan African hawkers selling knock off handbags, are some South Asian hawkers; selling different stuff: Splat balls! Then, more South Asian hawkers selling the exact same splat balls, furthermore, each one had the exact same approx 40x30CM melamine board for product demonstration.

A splat ball being splatted

I think I know what’s going on here, I just need to confirm it.

I tried to have a chat with one of the handbag sellers, but when it was established I wasn’t going to be buying one, he quickly got aggressive, so that was the end of that. Without the confidence for journalistic style fact finding, I’d instead have to speculate.

It’s not exactly a secret that there are millions of illegal economic migrants on the European continent, all who have made punishing journeys from their home countries, across many borders, looking for a better life. I’ve got a pretty strong feeling that these hawkers are those people.

Here’s the problem: You’ve just escaped your impoverished, oppressive home country, made an epic many-thousand mile journey (which many don’t survive) to Europe, only to find: They don’t really want you here. Worse still, you’ve got to make some kind of living to survive, but you can’t work, because you’re illegal. Maybe you could start selling stuff on the street? Works for quite a few. To do so, you need to get your hands on some cheap goods, really cheap, not least because you’re flat broke from paying a string of traffickers to get you this far.  Retail stores aren’t an option, because stuff is too expensive to re-sell on the street, and what kind of retailer is going to be selling fake Louis Vuitton bags?

What you really need is some mass produced tourist gimmicks from the far east (think China), not only that,  but the supply chain has to be very short, because people aren’t going to pay top prices for goods sold off the pavement. Problem is, without a credit card, internet connection, or even an address to have them delivered to, getting this stuff is going to be pretty tough. You need a middle man.

The middle man

This guy is the focus of this post. I’ve never seen this person, nor do I know where to find him/her, or have even confirmed their existence, but the evidence for their existence is strong. This person is likely a citizen of the country the hawkers operate in, or has a legal immigration status; Perhaps even a small business and most importantly, a hotline to Alibaba, or similar outfit. This guy has the best market you could ask for, He buys stuff from the far east, and flogs it off to the hawkers. He doesn’t even need to advertise, as the hawkers, and prospective hawkers, find out about him through word of mouth. He’s also the reason why all the hawkers sell the same stuff: When it comes to cheap mass produced goods purchasable by illegal migrants, his product catalogue is the only one in town.

Based purely on observation, It’s fairly likely that each ethnic group has their own middle man, which the hawkers come to know through friends or family connections once they arrive in their destination city. I don’t have any feelings of contempt for the hawkers, but what about those middle men? (Assuming they exist). Well, they’re taking advantage thousands of peoples desperate struggle for survival, and probably turning a fairly healthy profit in the process, but then, without them, they’d have no chance. It’s difficult to know where to stand on this one.