The fruit lady
Ever since I moved to Tirana, this week exactly six years ago, I have bought my fruits and vegetables with the same lady, who operated a small stall across the street from my apartment, between the ballet school and the “tregu elektrik.” The stall was built by herself and her family, from discarded wood, metal bars, and plastic. There were several of such stalls in a row selling food and household items, and on the street villagers from the surrounding area sold fresh milk, eggs, livestock, raki, and honey.
It was a small and informal but functioning ecosystem. Although my lady’s stall was technically an illegal construction, she paid some rent to the owner of the land and some to the municipality and served the neighborhood community with her fresh produce.
She lived with her family in an apartment close by, in a small space on the ground floor, and saved as much money as possible for her children to get a good education. Her eldest son is currently attending medical school, which, in terms of upward mobility, is quite a leap.
In comes the new mayor
In 2015, Erion Veliaj began his term as new mayor of Tirana and everything would be different. His protracted battle against informality managed mainly to affect the poorest layers of society, depriving Roma people from their “illegal” shacks, street vendors from their only source of income, and, yes, my fruit lady from her stall.
In Spring 2016, the excavators of the Construction Inspectorate razed the row of stalls to the ground under the pretext that the municipality would build a “neighborhood market” a little bit down the street, where all the formerly “informal” vendors could find a “proper” environment to sell their produce.
The municipal police organized razzias in the streets, confiscating the produce of street vendors if they couldn’t pay the hefty fines for not having a VAT number. I wondered: you destroy “informal” fruit and vegetable stalls and hunt down villagers selling apples and carrots. Where am I supposed to buy my food? The supermarket?!
Instead of building the new market first and then forcefully depriving a dozens of families form their income, and other families from their food supply, Veliaj decided to it the other way around. My lady responded by first rebuilding her stall next to the new supermarket, first with a few sunshades, later with a semi-permanent cover. But as summer arrived, the new owners of the land expanded the terrace of their bar toward the street, and left my fruit lady with nowhere to go.
Where there was first a row of honest vendors selling produce to the neighborhood, there was now yet another cafeteria. Meanwhile the “new” neighborhood market was nowhere to be seen, and my fruit lady and her family were left without income.
The tender for the construction of the fruit and vegetable market was opened on April 21, 2016 with a deadline of May 3, 2016 and a maximum budget of 4,430,640 lekë. Three days later, the municipality opened the tender for the oversight over the construction project, at a maximum price of 107,700 lekë. Both contracts were for a duration of two months after the signing of the contract.
The contract was won by Neal 86 shpk from Saranda for 3,634,547 lekë . Originally, Neal 86 had been disqualified, but the company presented an official complaint at the Commission for Public Procurement, which on June 14 decided that the disqualification had been unjustified. Neal 86 was subsequently announced winner of the tender, as published in the Bulletin of the Public Procurement Agency of July 4.
The contract between the municipality and Neal 86 for the construction of the fruit and vegetable marked was signed on July 8. According to the contract, the works should have been finished on September 8. The market opened more than four months later, on December 23.
Meanwhile, the oversight contract was won by Zenit-06 shpk, for 50,000 lekë – half of the maximum budget. But as we will see they didn’t do half of the work, they did none.
The construction of the market
The technical report that accompanied the construction tender clearly, albeit summarily, described the conditions in which Neal 86 was supposed to construct the new market. I translate part of the report below:
The part of the stalls is supposed to be covered by a marquee that can be manually opened and closed though an aluminium handle, and a water-resistant cover. The marquee is supported by a single line of metal columns. The opening and closing of the cover will allow for a better lighting of the part where the market operates, which will improve the working conditions of the traders and happiness of the citizens, especially in the winter months.
The stall will be a metal structure covered with galvanized metal plates on top and and with decorative wood paneling on the side of the client. Also, the metal columns of the marquees will be covered with the same decorative wood.
In the green space faucets will be built connected to the water supply, which will be at the service of the traders to get water and to clean the square after work.
Lighting will be arranged with Hydro T8 fl 2x36W lamps, which are mounted on the metal structure of the marquees. Also, in each group of stalls there will be electricity plugs appropriate for outside usage, which will furnish the traders with electricity.
Originally it seemed as if the work was more or less going according to schedule. The metal columns were placed and the marquees installed. I couldn’t really understand how this construction was supposed to protect the vendors from the rain and wind in the winter or make the market more “hygienic” – there were large gaps between adjacent marquees, and the market was completely open and unprotected from all sides, with the dust and dirt from the road blowing in.
Then suddenly the work stopped. A few months later, in October, a few workers started to build the stalls. Let’s remind ourselves that according to the contract, the whole thing had to be finished by September 4. In other words, Neal 86 was already in breach of contract at this point. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s local vendors were still out of work, forced to abandon their source of income by the municipal government.
I noticed that the workers were building the stalls the wrong way around, with the top of the stalls tilting inward rather than outward. Moreover, the columns were not padded with the decorative wood, and there were no electricity plugs or lighting to be seen.
Again, for a few weeks, nothing happened. Then one day I saw again a few workers removing the tops of the stalls and reinstalling them horizontally, rather than tilting outward. I am sure that they’d rather sell the excess metal for scrap than actually executing a proper work that would benefit the wellbeing of our neighborhood.
In any case, the erroneous execution is technically not the fault of construction company Neal 86 or “technical director” Albana Godaj; the municipality failed to provide proper instructions about how to create and orient the stalls, thus creating the possibility of this mistake in the first place.
As I came back from work on December 23, I suddenly saw that my fruit lady, after being deprived of her income for more than 7 months, had opened her stall in the “new” fruit market. I was very happy to see her and congratulated her on her new place. She told me she had paid the municipality 50,000 lekë to buy the right to open her stall. This and months of forced unemployment meant basically that her life’s savings had evaporated.
I asked her about the construction of the stalls. She told me that initially, when the tops had been mounted the wrong way around, they had gone to the municipality to complain. Their initial response had been: “you have too many pretensions.” Apparently, later they understood that the sight of products turned away from customers is really not going to help the image of urban renewal Veliaj wanted to project. Meanwhile, the lights are still not working and the so-called “green zone” are just patches of miserable grass, mud, and trash.
Let’s make this very clear: my fruit lady didn’t lose her savings while gambling or drinking. She didn’t lose her savings because she spent them on a big black Mercedes with tinted windows. She lost her savings because the municipality destroyed her family’s only source of income while promising new facilities for her to exercise her profession, failed to build those facilities on time, failed to build those facilities properly, and on top of that made her pay an additional 50,000 lekë to buy her way back in.
And you know what she told me? The municipality still hadn’t decided on the rent. They had just been told to show up because the mayor was going to open the market.
In spite of all its propaganda, the current municipal government is worsening the hardships of the many workers by a mistaken sense of “formalization of the market.” Under the pretext of “improvement,” the lives of families like those of my fruit lady and the many street vendors and villagers in streets like mine all over the city are made into a living hell, as they are forced out of business under the pretext of “informality” or “tax evasion.” Meanwhile, in construction sites all over the city, the holes in the ground and the public budget deficits are billions of times larger than the budgetary deficit caused by an “illegally” sold tomato.
Once it starts raining again, I am sure that the vendors in the “new,” “formal,” and “hygienic” market will find a way to protect themselves and their products from the elements. They will install additional plastic covers and small wind shields. First temporarily, and then more permanently. They do this not because they want to. They do this because they need to. Because the government, in its utter stupidity and recklessness, has wasted €32,000 of public money to offer a service no one really needed. And while doing so, they made the life of many a lot more miserable.