Organising informal sector workers: build collective strength to fight poverty
More than 60% of the workforce around the world is employed in the informal economy. Work in the informal economy is often characterised by small or undefined workplaces, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, low or irregular incomes, long working hours and lack of access to finance, training and technology. As work in the informal economy are often not recognised by policy, it goes unregulated and unprotected under labour legislation. Workers in the informal sector often lack social protection and many remain trapped in poverty.
To address this issue of lack of voice, visibility and validity through constructive struggle, Ela Bhatt founded Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA)– a trade union of poor women workers from the informal sector in 1972, organizing its members from over 135 different trades for achieving ‘full employment’ at household level and self-reliance. This means ensuring they have work security, income security, food security & social security, in addition to improving their organizational strength, collective bargaining and leadership skills – thus fight against poverty. Today, the SEWA movement has spread from Gujarat to 16 Indian states and neighboring South Asian countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
SEWA’s uniqueness lies in its joint action of Unions and Cooperatives. SEWA’s organizing builds the collective strength so that women themselves become the owners & managers of their own economic institutions. On these lines, SEWA’s members have built over a hundred institutions aimed at getting “full employment”.
Some of the constructive developments instrumented by SEWA are the Street Vendors Act 2014, ILO’s C177 – Home workers conventions.
The term microfinance came much later, but the activity of including the ‘micro person’ of society in financial services was started by SEWA through its “The SEWA Cooperative Bank” launched in 1974 - thus addressing the special financial needs of its members and freeing them from eternal debt.
SEWA’s health cooperative - "Lokswasthya Mandali" provides poor illiterate members with health education and basic knowledge about prevention and treatment of illnesses.
SEWA initiated its agriculture campaign that focuses on climate resilient farming practises to strengthen agriculture - the primary livelihood of its over 2/3rdmembers who are rural.
In order to strengthen the small farmers, ensure food security and to demonstrate Elaben Bhatt’s 100-miles concept, SEWA has initiated its rural distribution network – RUDI - an agri-business enterprise that connects SEWA’s farmer members to the end-users, thus ensuring better returns for farmers and employment for landless labourers.
To address the energy access issues of its rural members, SEWA launched its energy initiative – Hariyali, facilitating its members to switch to clean, green energy solutions in their homes and livelihoods. Eventually - even though small, but a contribution to India’s NDC in form of reduced carbon footprint.
SEWA has also organized its over 15000 artisan members into their own company – “SEWA Trade Facilitation Center” (STFC) and launched their brand “Hansiba”. These women use their traditional embroidery skills to create garments for national and international designers and fashion houses.
In 2010, SEWA began working with conflict-affected poor informal women workers in Sri Lanka, training them in food processing, garment manufacturing, enterprise, leadership and value-chain. It helped them set-up two centers in Batticaloa, through which trainings are being extended to many more poor women workers. SEWA also helped form a cooperative society – Women's Self-Employed Development Cooperative Society (WSDCSociety), which has since extended its reach in Trincomali and Ampara districts.
On similar lines, in 2010, SEWA also started working with war-affected women workers in Afghanistan; helping them organize and register their own organization – Sabah Baug-e-Khazana – providing vocational trainings in garment manufacturing, Food processing, Embroidery and Eco-regeneration.
The scale of SEWA’s growth across India and South Asia indicates the strength of their organizing and their approach of continuous constructive struggle that leads to strengthening the collective power of informal women workers and building of Women’s leadership. Under this women’s leadership, SEWA is paving the path for women’s right to decent work and through it peace building.