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Why Informal Women Workers Must Build Collective Strength

05/05/2015 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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J. Luckham

For poor families across India, regular employment and adequate earnings are the critical factors in their ability to survive. And it's not just men who are bringing home the wages. Women make substantial economic contributions to their households, all the while delicately balancing the double burden of income-generating work and unpaid care work.

As of 2011-12, 82% of all urban women workers are in informal employment in India, working in their own homes (as home-based workers); in other people's homes (as domestic workers); and in public spaces (as vendors or construction workers or waste-pickers). Poverty, vulnerability and insecurity mark their existence and their work remains undervalued and unrecognised.

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Photo credit: J. Luckham

It is not easy for this marginalised group of workers to increase their visibility, but poor women workers are increasingly organising and finding their collective voice. Coming together into organisations is one of the ways in which poor women fight the many layers of oppression and injustice that shackle them. It increases their bargaining power, leads them to better income and access to resources and markets, helps them influence policies and brings them greater leverage and wider impact. But the strategies to effectively organise poor women need to be responsive to their unique needs.

"Coming together into organisations is one of the ways in which poor women fight the many layers of oppression and injustice that shackle them."

Informal women workers tend to work in non-factory settings, so using the traditional trade union strategies of "shop-floor" organising and mobilising do not work here. The lack of a specific employer also makes mobilisation of these groups of workers difficult, since there is no common force against whom they could be organised. Many women workers and their work are often hidden within long production chains. They may not know other women workers in the same position. Many are so busy surviving that finding the time to devote to an organisation is hard. These problems are exacerbated by the intersection of gender with religion and caste.

However, membership-based organisations -- those that are controlled by the people they serve and are responsive to their particular needs and aspirations -- have great potential in empowering informal workers, especially women. And several successful models exist. These initiatives take many forms -- trade unions, cooperatives, networks, federations -- and vary in size and scope. What they have in common is that their membership is representative of poor and vulnerable women.

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Photo credit: J. Luckham

The Self-Employed Women's Association of India, or SEWA, is one of the largest trade unions of informal women workers in India. SEWA adopts a diverse set of strategies and approaches to building collective strength. It addresses issues that go beyond the usual ones taken up by conventional trade unions and seeks to protect and strengthen its members in a holistic way. Besides living/minimum wages, safety and compensation, SEWA also addresses a host of poverty-driven needs of the members ranging from skill training to micro-finance and insurance to housing and child care.

SEWA's collective bargaining strategies not only target the employers and employer groups but also the state. Often, the bargaining process has a tripartite nature with the employers, workers and government forming the three critical pillars of negotiations.

What makes the SEWA model so unique is that it focuses on building the capacity of its women members so that they can actively participate in the management of the organisation. It also promotes organisational forms that remain responsive to the needs of the women members. In doing so, it promotes grassroots leadership, self-reliance and democratic governance.

"Let us support [women workers] as they set out to address their vulnerability and insecurity, and address many of the constraints that poverty and marginalisation impose on them."

With almost two million women members, spread over nine states, SEWA is a remarkable example globally of how organising can be the key to empowerment for women workers. Today, SEWA is both an organisation of poor women workers and also a women's movement to create a secure world with equal opportunities and better alternatives for informal women workers.

With May Day having just passed, let us celebrate the collective strength of women workers as they increasingly come together to build representative organisations, which give them voice and visibility. Let us support them as they set out to address their vulnerability and insecurity, and address many of the constraints that poverty and marginalisation impose on them. But most of all, let us salute their individual grit and collective strength as they take bold steps to come out of poverty and build a life of dignity and justice.

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