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Informal, but organised: the 30-year success of the Self Employed Women's Association of India

Coming together as a collective is a proven way to improve the pay and labour conditions for informal workers in India.

I'm Nalini Nayak, and I come from Kerala. I work with the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), which is a trade union of women workers in the informal sector. It's a national union and it's also a central, independent trade union. Our politics is on women's rights and women's spaces in society. In India there are numerous trades in informality. Each has their own trade committee within SEWA, and it is within these trade committees that they take up issues specifically related to that trade. But then, as a union, we have a common agenda for the entire union.

SEWA's is the first union in the country which is made up only of informal workers. This means that it's also a union which has been very difficult to build up, as it's more difficult to collect dues in the informal sector than the formal sector. But that's been the way that SEWA has been organising: building up organisations off the workers themselves.

Just by collectivising and organising, workers have been able to get higher than the government-regulated minimum wage.

For instance, the collectivisation of workers in particular trades to create their own cooperatives, to create their own production units, to create their own worker-producer companies. There are a variety of these institutions that members have created over the years, including of course the SEWA bank, which was already started in the seventies because there was no access to credit for women. That's also a cooperative. SEWA builds up these institutions to sustain the work of the workers, but also to sustain the union.

SEWA has also created domestic worker collectives, and through these we have been able to raise the standards of wages for workers, because workers are trained and belong to their organisation. Therefore, when issues or problems arise, the client deals with the office and issues are negotiated and solved.

Because they are a collective and because that collective maintains good relations with employers, workers have been able to get their rights regarding a regulated working day, a paid day off every week, and an extra benefit which we call a welfare fund, which the employer also contributes towards. So, just by collectivising and organising, workers have been able to get higher than the government-regulated minimum wage.

Cameron Thibos (oD): At first blush a strongly organised informal sector sounds like an oxymoron. What kind of labour context is this operating within, who are you bargaining with?

Nalini: The individual employer! The employer needs a worker. There is a demand in this changing age because families are becoming more nuclear. India used to have this joint family where old parents looked after the grandchildren. It doesn't happen very much anymore, and neither do you have children who look after the old people.

SEWA began domestic work not for cleaning and cooking. We started by training workers to look after the old, the sick, the children, to help with deliveries – we specialised, we trained workers. The home is a domestic space in which she works, so she's a domestic worker, but her skills are different and she delivers a different service. It was only when we raised the bar of wages that we started doing cleaning and cooking.

Cameron: So the trade was a certain, advanced standard of care in exchange for an actual contract and labour rights.

Nalini: Yes, and that works. But, the other thing in India is that there's so much discrimination because of caste. Initially the household wanted a worker from a caste which was not so low. They would come to the office and say, 'could you give us a worker from this religion, or this caste?' We said, 'no, we don't work on those grounds here. We're all human beings.'

People went away, but they all came back, because this was the only place where they knew they would get a service which was worthwhile. So now we don't get these questions, and workers don't face discrimination at the workplace, like they would do if they were unorganised. So just through collectivisation we managed these achievements.

That said, we noticed that in certain cities collectivisation doesn't happen. Workers are able to negotiate wages, and workers don't want to remain full-time in one household. You see, there are all kinds of issues. We started our service about 30 years ago, and it's grown since then. But in newer cities, where the workers begin to organise, it doesn't take off as easily. So it depends on the city, and it depends on the area.

Cameron: Could summarise how caste, and gender, and race, and location intersect to create certain types of unfreedom in the Indian context?

Nalini: Caste is a deeply rooted social construct. And, unfortunately, it's also based largely on colour. So the two things go together. It's not necessarily so, because in South India where everybody is darker skinned, of course the lower castes are also dark skinned. But, generally you would notice that certain people do certain kinds of work, and that there is a division of labour in the society. It's a social construct which then got justified in religious terms.

It's not always this way though. We also have, for instance, tribal communities in the northeast who are highly educated, but where work is much less because of the hilly terrain. They move into other states of this country and they are terribly treated. They have fairer skin but are very badly treated.

So there are a large number of issues. I would say that India is a very racist country. I would say it's worse than many other countries because it's so socially rooted and even accepted. That's what one has to understand.

Cameron: You work with self-employed and other informal workers, who I know make up a substantial part of the economy in India. Could you explain how so much of India's production has remained outside the formal labour sector, and what some of the consequences of this has been?

Nalini: We are a society that didn't pass through the transition to an industrial society the way the west did. You know, 80% or 90% of our workers have always been in the informal sector. We continue to have so many trades which are home based, all these handicrafts and the cottage industries.

Of course, workers began to organise, and all the artisans began to be recognised, and the artisans began to have development boards, but they continued to be home-based. The state tried post-independence to develop these boards to assist artisans – to improve their skills and their trades – so they never got drawn into that industry process. Or, if there was industry, it couldn't absorb the large masses of people living in rural India, so they had to be absorbed elsewhere. Home-based work of that kind was work with dignity, and the artisan boards did try to raise the standards, raise wages, provide facilities, a lot of that happened until the 90s.

It was globalisation, the '94 process, which destroys all this, because then India became an open ground for everybody to enter, and products from different parts of the world began to enter, and there was also this huge process of mechanisation and modernisation. The protective barriers that the country had formally to protect the workers and their rights in those trades – those collapsed. Already in the 1970s, when SEWA began to organise artisans and workers of different trades, there was the possibility to negotiate with the state.

Weavers, for instance. This was a huge industry, and a home-based industry. They had cooperatives, so they remained at home but their products went to the cooperatives. So it was a different way of operation, until you get open barriers, open borders, and industry coming in. So, the 1994 GATT agreement changed everything in this country – like it did all over the world – and now we see this expansion of capital and the growing disparities in the country. You know you may have more money, but the disparities are much wider.

Tom Hughes/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cameron: So over the past 25 years or so the living standards and working standards of large segments of the Indian population have gotten worse and not better, by your estimation?

Nalini: The situations in the countryside are probably not as desperate as they used to be years ago. Roads, lighting, electricity, schools – these have all reached rural areas, so from that point of view living standards probably have improved. But then what you do, after that? You're going to school, you're not going back to agriculture, so where do you go? There's no job for you anymore. So this is the contradiction that has taken place, this is the problem of today.

Cameron: One final question: I know that you're also involved with work regarding the eighth sustainable development goal, particularly SDG 8.7. Do you see this as a fruitful process, and what does decent work look like from the perspective of SEWA and some of the many sectors that you help represent?

Nalini: SDGs are the kinds of targets that international organisations give themselves and then probably do very little about. But what I'm interested in is this relationship between SDG 5 on gender and 8.7, because there is this whole feminist perspective on decent work – it all goes back again to the household in a way. That's where decent work has to start, that's where the invisible labour of women has to be recognised.

SDGs are the kinds of targets that international organisations give themselves and then probably do very little about.

Invisible care work and nurture has to be recognised, and economics today does not recognise care and nurture. One aspect of this is the domestic worker, the worker who fight for her rights and can organise to get them. But more broadly, care and nurture are a part of our society in order to sustain our society. This is unpaid, and in the division of labor in a household it generally on the woman.

There is also care of nature, and no economics takes care of nature, which we just use indiscriminately. Nurturing nature is also a feminist position, which no economist wants to think about. They speak about green economics, but that's just a way to make more money out of green. The Beyond Trafficking and Slavery network should open this debate wider, and link more to the feminist economic debates to see how we can bring those concepts into talk about the alternative. We should already be thinking about this alternative and whichever legal frameworks are required to sustain it.

Cameron: Speaking of alternative paradigms, during the conference my colleague Neil Howard brought up basic income, and you described that as 'upsetting'. That was the word you used, and it's a very powerful word. Why?

Nalini: I said in the Indian context. There is a network in India working on a so-called universal basic income, but they've dropped the word universal and they call it basic income.

Now, we have calculations for what are called the below poverty line group. This is a large group, but even within it there are distinctions. If all we speak of is a very minimum basic income, according to these calculations all the money that the government puts today in other welfare programmes would have to be dropped, and they can still only give this basic income to the small 40% of people who are in the BPL group. That's all the money the government has.

The alternative is, raise the taxes of the taxpayer. But in India, nobody wants to pay income tax. So, if you really want basic income, the people who earn money should be willing to share it. But in India, nobody who earns money wants to share it, so they never allow income tax to be raised. This is especially true for those who have big money, because they're the ones who fund the government. So, if you're in a context where the state can't tax the earner of the money, then where is the state going to get the money to provide a basic income, if it doesn't cut away everything else that people get now? So that's why I said, not in India. Don't talk about it in India, because the state already puts so little money in welfare, and it will all go.

Cameron: So in your estimation pushing for basic income will likely undermine welfare systems that already exist?

Nalini: You see, if the state doesn't even say anything to an employer who's not paying you your minimum wage, and then that worker gets basic income, you're only subsidising the big employer. This is the situation, and we say no. Let the country first establish minimum wage, and sees that every employer pays minimum wage, but if you don't do that what's the point of saying basic income?

All of these workers are working – they're working! – they're not sitting at home. They're all workers, and they're not getting their basic minimum wage. You know, India tea plantations were the first industry to be called an industry. It's a plantation, but post-independence they were the first industry to be called an industry. And minimum wage was established. It has never been paid in certain states of this country, except in the south. In none of the northern states do the tea plantation workers ever get their minimum wage. So, you want to give them basic income? When the tea plantation is booming, when the tea industry is booming? This is the logic. Pay them.


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