Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Always an afterthought: women in the informal sector

Millions of women work in the Indian informal sector, but very few have a voice at the table. One labour organiser explains their challenges and what they really need from western allies.

Dithhi Bhattacharya Cameron Thibos
28 March 2018

My name is Dithhi Bhattacharya, and I’ve work for the Centre for Workers' Management in India for over a decade. It was set up by trade unions. Today it's more like what people would call an NGO, but it is a trade union resource center.

We work mainly with trade unions which have traditionally not been affiliated to political parties. They are independent, autonomous, and they don’t really have a whole political framework to govern how they work and how they take things forward. They’re also isolated because they're not part of the political system, and not part of the central trade unions. We have focused on them, although sometimes we also work with unions which have political affiliation.

Cameron (oD): Who do these unions represent, and why have they developed independently of the party system?

Dithhi: Well we're talking about unions from all sectors practically. We are talking about unions of domestic workers and construction workers – the whole range of informal workers – then of course we work also in the garment sector, which is the lowest end of the formal sector, all the way to engineering industry workers. We work with them to take on issues that really affect their daily collective bargaining and freedom of association.

Cameron (oD): One particular focus is also women-led unions or groups, as I understand it.

Ditthi: Yes. Even within the autonomous union movement, they are the unions which are the least supported. These are unions which always come as an afterthought. Any issue that is related to women workers always comes as an, ‘Oh we forgot, let's also put this in. Let's not leave them out’. We work primarily with women workers, and where there is a formation, even a pre-union formation, we work closely with them.

Women-led unions always come as an afterthought.

Cameron (oD): So let's not leave them out. Would the two biggest groups we’re talking about be domestic work and the garment sector?

Ditthi: Yes.

Cameron (oD): What are the main challenges that these two unions are facing?

Ditthi: Our biggest challenge is the capacity for the workers and their unions to really break this whole system of the fact that we cannot collectively bargain with employers. We are in the informal sector. So, even the unions, we have got into this narrative that we can't engage with the employers. We have to engage with the state.

The entire bargaining framework is therefore directed to the state and not to the employers. That’s a huge challenge. We really want, and have been successful in many cases, to take the whole narrative from negotiations with the state to negotiations directly with employers.


Cameron (oD): So union activism in India is mainly targeted towards trying to create new laws, and regulations, and frameworks through from the state?

Ditthi: The understanding is, if you have a law, then you'll be able to implement it. But that's not true. What I keep trying to tell people is that, even if you have laws, it doesn't mean you'll be able to implement them on the ground. You really have to have a union on the ground to be able to implement them. You have to have a union on the ground to be able to monitor what's happening in your factory. Audits don't work. These kinds of things really will not work as long as you don't have a union on the truck floor which really says, ‘this is not working. You have to do it differently’.

Cameron (oD): It’s hard to imagine this is the intra-worker conversation. I would've thought it's very obvious to workers that many laws aren't being enforced in India. We've heard a hundred of times that minimum wages aren't being enforced.

Ditthi: Yes, but there is this belief that, if we have a new law, we will be able to better enforce it. But what in history makes it possible to believe this? I think there is a loss of history that we are facing today, that we don't look back and see what we should have learned through our experiences. Somehow we think that if we have this magic act, we are gonna be able to do everything that we are now not able to do. But it doesn't really work like that.

Cameron (oD): To complicate it all a bit further: factory floors are one thing, domestic work behind closed doors is another thing entirely, right? How can that be effectively monitored and policed by anybody – be it state, worker, trade union, anybody?

Ditthi: Well, it's a challenge for sure. But the question is: why do we believe that there is an inviolate right of employers to privacy? It’s also a very complex social condition, where everybody is an employer. Even lower middle-class households today employ domestic workers.

If you have the right to employ, you should be within an inspection framework or else don't employ. You want your privacy? Fine. Keep your privacy. Close your doors. Don't let outsiders in. But if you let an outsider in, you have to allow other outsiders in. You have the right to run background checks on the person, but that worker who works in your house has no right to do checks on you. Why is that so?

When we're talking about a tripartite framework, you're actually talking about employers, employers, and workers. Possibly even employers, employers, and employers.

If you seek protection from the state, which you do all the time, the state is equally responsible for giving protection to the worker – who is an equal citizen. Yet at the end of the day, the state is always looking at itself as a representative of employers – because all state government employees employ domestic workers.

So, the state also represents employers. When we're talking about a tripartite framework, you're actually talking about employers, employers, and workers. Possibly even employers, employers, and employers, because even trade unionists employ domestic workers. So it is a very unfair situation, as you cannot have collective bargaining or any form of negotiation when everybody is an employer.

Cameron (oD): And so given what you've said about how there’s no magic law, how do you feel about the sustainable development goals and a possible ILO conventions on decent work? Do you see any point to this exercise? Could it be leveraged somehow to workers' advantage, or is it just another round of rich people talking in Geneva?

Ditthi: Whenever there is something I always think that is an entry point for organising. You can use that to bargain. But who bargains? That's the question. At some point one needs to take into account: is there really a force which is capable of bargaining? Are we getting the voices which are really bargaining to the table where these issues are being discussed?

That is a more critical point than to say that these sustainable development goals don't work, or an ILO convention on decent work doesn't work. They will not work until you are really able to push things on the ground. When you push start pushing things on the ground, these could be effective tools to take things one step further.

But, they have their limitations. One also needs to understand that these are also goals and conventions that are decided while taking into account employer interest. Hence, these are not really in favor of us. But if you are at the bottom of the ladder and you can climb some where to the middle using these, fair enough. Use it. But don't start to believe that these are the ways forward or that these are the answer to our problems. The answer actually is that you need to really organise on the ground. If you are able to organise it, you will be able to achieve it. If you're able to achieve it, you'll be able to move beyond it. So that is something that one needs to look at.

For many many years the consumer campaigns have always said ‘pay more’. Paying more is not really going to help.

Cameron (oD): And one final question. India produces an awful lot for companies that aren't actually based here – mostly the end buyers or end employers are in western countries, the West in either Europe or America. And so organising hits a wall as long as it stays national. Have there been any attempts, or do you see hope, for bargaining across countries or bargaining along the supply chain? For somehow getting out of the Indian context and actually moving further up the supply chain, perhaps by working with other unions in other countries?

Ditthi: Yes well, of course. That is something that we do in garments. It's a very small step, but I think it's a very important step that the Garment Workers' Union in Bangalore has been able to work very closely with retail workers in Germany over the past three years. They've worked very closely with the workers' councils in Germany, and the whole idea was that we need to disintegrate the supply chain. We need to really understand how exploitation really happens along the supply chain, and how both are really at the receiving end of it.

If you're comparing conditions in very absolute terms, maybe the German workers are better off than garment workers in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or India. But when we bring them together, it becomes clear that the workers in Germany aren’t as well off as we think they are. They need to work two jobs to survive. They don't have child care. They don't have maternity benefit. They don't have anything that we thought they had. So somewhere there is a sense of solidarity.


Garment factory in Delhi. Ishan Khosla/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On the other hand, the first thing that we encountered when we started talking to the German workers was ‘how can we help’? But when they heard from the Garment Workers' Unions that we really don't need your help, because we believe that you need more help than we do, because at least we are a large number of people, the whole discussion went beyond the charity framework.

It got us beyond the idea that ‘if I give you two dollars more or two euros more for a t-shirt, I go to sleep feeling good that I did something for the garment workers in Bangladesh’. Those two dollars more that you've paid out of your pocket really doesn't go to the garment workers, but instead actually goes to your employer. They are making more money because you gave more money to the big brands. To hear that gave them some kind of a reality check that the charity framework doesn't work.

For many many years the consumer campaigns have always said ‘pay more’. Pay more and you'll go home feeling good. You've done something for the garment workers in Bangladesh. But paying more is not really going to help. That really is a departure from where we think solidarity is possible, and it’s really where you can bring workers together to be able to bargain collectively with the principal employer or the brands.

I told this long story because, last June, the Garment Workers' Unions from Bangalore, from Bangladesh, and from Sri Lanka together with the retail workers of H&M and Primark submitted a collective charter of demands to H&M and Primark. This contained both the issues of retail workers and the issues of the garment workers.

H&M and Primark were of course not very happy with the idea. The union in Bangalore and the union in Dhaka have already received calls from the brand offices – something that we’ve never heard of in the many, many years that we have worked with unions – saying, ‘How could you do this? How could you go to Germany and submit a charter of demands? You have to talk to us’. And both the unions have responded, saying, ‘Well, we've been trying to talk you for decades and you didn't entertain us, and now we have submitted our charter of demands and you must negotiate with us’. It's a very small beginning, but it's a very powerful beginning.

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