The Self-Employed Women's Association of India

Union Struggles

SEWA developed from Mafor Mahafan, the trade union inspired by Gandhiji and founded by a woman, Anasooyaben. SEWA has continued the tradition of Ansooyaben by organising the women of the unorganised sector into a trade union run on Gandhian principles.

Unionising is not merely struggle and confrontation. It also means responsible and construstive organisation for action building. The union is not meant merely for solving workers' economic problems. It also attempts to address the tatality of their lives and ensure that they obtain the recognition that is their due in the society. To achieve these goals and ideals, the means also have to be ideal. That is where the Gandhian tradition of organising provided both inspiration and direction. According to Gandhian philosopy, the means to all end are important. They should be clear, pure and principled. Truth, non-violence, communal harmony, removal of untouchability; and propagation of khadi and village-based industiries form the cornerstones of the means to these goals.

Our mafor struggles this year were around questions of representation in decision and policy making bodies.

  1. Struggle to include unorganised sector unions in the Indian Labour Conference

    The Indian Labour Conference is held every year and the recognised Central Trade Unions only, representing a shrinking 7% of the work-froce, are invited for it. This conference discusses the vital issues, but the unorganised sector is completely left out. Although academicians and other interested persons are invited as observers, the unorganised sector is completely unrepresented.

    In 1994, SEWA demanded the right to entry, and when it was refused, the executive committee from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh sat on a Dharna outside the meeting hall. The members were arrested by the police and taken away on the first day, but on the second day we sat on the pavement outside the Conference with our banner asking "Where is 93% of the work-force".

    In 1995, the International Labour Organization is considering a Convention on Homebased worders in its conference in June. SEWA is in a major way responsible for the issue to have gone to this stage. To prepare an answer to the ILO Questionnaire on the subject, SEWA organised a workshop in Delhi, which was inaugurated by the Labour Minister and well-attended by all Central Trade Unions. All were in favour of a convention which would promote employment, protect workers through new tripartite ways of implementing labour laws, and give social security coverage to the workers.

  2. Ongoing struggle to get protection for the home-based workers.

    On the ground there were a number of wage increases through negotiations and organising, most notably a 20% increase in piece-rate of bidi workers, 33% increase for aggarbatti worker, 12% for garment workers and 40% increase for headloaders.

    The vendors in 1994 fought many cases in the traffic courts and succeeded in getting the fines reduced or cancelled.

    In their struggle for legitimacy, the paper-pickers became part of the city's environmental and cleanliness movement, when they joined hand with the environment groups to clean the middle-class localities.

    Major activities of the Unions

    • Increase in wages
    • Reinstatements
    • Vendors Cases
    • Sammelans
    • Procession and Dharna
    • Worker Education
    • Training (SEWA movement)

    Major constraints

    The major constraints for unions of the unorganised sector is that, neither they nor the issues of their members are easily recognised and taken seriously. Although SEWA now has a membership of nearly 150,000 it is still not represented at policy making bodies.

    Policies and laws which work against SEWA members are another constraint. Vending is a major form of employment in Indian cities, yet there is no recognition of the vendors as performing a useful service and instead of formulating policies which would give them secure vending space, they are treated as criminals and "traffic offenders". Supreme court judgements which call for each city to make its own scheme to accommodate vendors has given some hope, but the cities in Gujarat have made no move to implement these schemes.

    Mechanization is a major threat to employment. In the screen-printing factories, women are being displaced and employment reduced by 50% as new machines come in.

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