Une économie solidaire peut-elle être féministe ?| , ,
Solidarités, féminismes et rapport au politique
Organising social protection through solidarity of women workers: experiences of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, SEWA, in India
1The world of work has changed significantly in all corners of the globe. In India too, particularly over the last twenty years, there have been major changes. India has always had a large informal economy, with a majority being self-employed workers. However, in recent decades, the numbers of informal workers has grown to over 430 million or over 93 per cent of the workforce. These are workers with no employer-employee relationship – purely self-employed workers like small and marginal farmers, street vendors and small producers of various goods and services – and also those with changing employers, like construction workers, home-based workers and domestic workers.
2These workers have little or no access to basic workers’ rights and entitlements including minimum wages and regular income. They also do not have basic social protection and services, though there has been some progress in this regard in recent years.
3Workers of the informal economy contribute significantly to India’s growth and development. Over 50 per cent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from the informal economy. They also contribute significantly to exports and national savings, about 47 per cent and over 50 per cent respectively.
4Women constitute a significant segment of informal workers, though this is not reflected adequately in current national workforce participation statistics. There are many well-known reasons for this, including the fact that their work is undercounted or not counted at all. They are the poorest and most vulnerable of workers, undertaking work that men refuse to do, and at lower wage rates. The work they do is often hazardous, like climbing precarious staircases at construction sites with a load of bricks balanced on their heads, or sorting waste material, often toxic, from garbage dumps.
5Like their sisters in other parts of the world, Indian women also do most of the work within the home, in the family and outside. They bear the double or triple burden of undertaking economic activities for survival, household work and bearing and caring for children, in addition to the care of elderly family members and the sick.
6The Self‑Employed Women’s Association, SEWA, began organising women workers of the informal economy in 1972, recognising that there was an overlap between informality, poverty and gender. If a strong workers’ movement was to be built in India, then it was clear to SEWA that informal women workers not only had to be organised into their own unions and cooperatives, but also that it was their issues that needed to be in the forefront.
7Today SEWA is a national union of almost 2 million women workers of the informal economy in 13 states of India. What began as a small union founded by Ela Bhatt has now grown into a nationwide movement, and has even encouraged women across national boundaries in South Asia, Africa, South-East Asia and elsewhere.
8SEWA organises women into their own membership-based organisations like unions and cooperatives, as mentioned above, but also into smaller collectives, like self-help groups (SHGs) and their federations. The goal of the movement is to support women workers to emerge from poverty, and to move towards self-reliance, both in financial terms and in terms of decision making and control of their own organisations.
9This approach is influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking, which stresses on the poor themselves organising and acting collectively for change and ultimately their own sustainable and decentralised development. In his seminal work, Hind Swaraj (Gandhi 1909), he critiques dependence on outsiders like lawyers, doctors and others who can be exploitative, advocating instead for self-help and sharing labour and its fruits. This approach sits well with some traditional practices and structures, especially in rural areas, where community contributions and shared labour during harvesting, festivals, building a temple or mosque, still remain today. Hence, the solidarity approach and the solidarity economy resonates well with SEWA’s own values and ideology based on Indian cultural values, and also Gandhian thinking. It also reflects, as we shall see in this paper, our day-to-day, grassroots level experiences.
10Over the years, we have learned that full employment at the household level, through membership-based organisations of women workers, is the road to self-reliance. Full employment comprises work and income security, food security and social security. In our experience, the latter should include at least health care, child care, insurance, pension and shelter, including a tap and toilet in every home.
11Further, we have learned that work security and social security are two sides of the same coin – women workers will not be able to move towards self-reliance without both.
12In addition, we have seen that social security and other services are best developed and provided by women workers’ organisations which are local and close to the women they aim to serve. They work best when used, owned and run by the workers themselves. As far as social security organisations are concerned, we have chosen to develop cooperatives. Not only does this form of organisation promote solidarity by its very nature, but also it can be sustainable, both financially and in terms of decision-making and control by the workers.
13In this paper, three examples of cooperatives will be described which address the social security and social protection needs of women workers, and through the solidarity approach.
14One of the earliest demands of SEWA members was for child care. Like mothers everywhere, they repeatedly said that they wanted a better future for their children. They wanted them to get a head start in life that would prepare them for school, so that they could become literate and obtain employment with better incomes. They also said that with their children taken care of, they could work with peace of mind and earn more to bring in food and other essentials. Thus, the very first social protection and social security measure we undertook was developing crèches for our members’ young children.
15The crèches are run by women workers, all from the informal economy, who are the neighbours, friends and relatives of the mothers. The crèche workers take care of the children as if they were their own, and SEWA provides the training in early childhood care and development, health care and nutrition. In turn, SEWA members contribute towards costs through payment of modest fees and obtaining contributions from local grocery shops, employers and local well-wishers. Thus, from the start we incorporated the solidarity approach, one that encourages self-help, community contributions, local ownership and sustainability.
16Further, after a few years of running crèches, we decided to develop a cooperative of the crèche workers and mothers, to ensure sustainability and consolidate solidarity and sisterhood. In 1986, the Sangini Balsewa cooperative was registered after much struggle, as the Registrar of the Cooperatives Department could not believe that such an organisation, run by women workers themselves, could be viable. The women workers, all crèche workers, were unfazed. They persistently kept meeting the Registrar till he agreed to register the state’s first such cooperative. Not only has Sangini proved them wrong by being both viable and democratically run by the workers, but also that very government department has been consistently giving them “A” grade based on their performance, for the last ten years.
17There have been many lessons from Sangini’s solidarity approach to child care. First, women’s income went up from between fifty to hundred per cent with the provision of this important service. Mothers said that for the first time they could afford to buy dal (lentils) and other nutritious food for their families. Thus, nutritional levels not only improved, but malnutrition in young children, an enduring problem in India with about 42 per cent of under-fives malnourished, was taken care of through both feeding at our crèches and more food in the home.
18Second, the older siblings, especially girls, went to school for the first time in their lives, having been released from the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings. One of our studies showed that 70 per cent of the older siblings entered school for the first time in their lives when child care was available to their families (Chatterjee and Macwan 1992).
19Third, the children’s overall health and nutrition levels improved markedly as they were not only well taken care of at the crèche, but also government and private providers came to the crèche to immunise all the children, monitor their heights and weights, and check up on their overall well-being.
20Fourth, through regular interaction with both parents, their knowledge levels on child development, health and nutrition improved markedly. When our members insisted that we engage more with the fathers, we did so and found much interest. This also reduced women’s work, and responsibilities are now shared between both parents.
21Fifth, the crèches became a hub for further organising and community development. Workers of all communities and faiths came together in the common interest of their children. This helped to build trust and solidarity among the workers, and also in organising, in SEWA and in Sangini. Parents began to contribute time and money to making the cooperative sustainable. Sangini is now indeed viable, and regularly distributes dividends from its modest profits every year to its 637 shareholders, all crèche workers and mothers.
22Finally, we learned that child care, through such local worker-owned and worker-run organisations like Sangini cooperative, are part of the solidarity economy, promote further organising of informal workers and result in poverty reduction. In fact, in many state, national and international fora, SEWA has argued that child care is poverty reduction, and is essential for dealing with widespread hunger and malnutrition. In India Sangini’s solidarity-based child care model has been documented by the government, by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and others. It has contributed, along with other unions and NGOs, to the government of India’s re-examining all its child care policies and programmes, particularly the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), making it more relevant to both young children and their parents, mostly workers of the informal economy.
23Along with child care, our members began to voice their need for access to health care from the early days of SEWA. They explained that if they or their family members were sick, they could not go out to work and hence lost their daily wages or income. They did not have sick leave or health insurance. They also said that they needed to know how to stay healthy and to prevent illness, as far as possible.
24In 1977, SEWA Bank, also a solidarity-based cooperative providing microfinance to women workers, found that of the 500 women who took loans from the bank and could not reimburse, the major reason was sickness of the worker or her family member. We also learned that 20 of the loanees had died, 15 of them in childbirth. These findings led to our developing a fully-fledged, community-based health programme, again led by women workers themselves.
25The first thing we did was to learn about our bodies and how to stay healthy. SEWA trained a small team of its members as health workers, providing simple health information and education, providing primary health care including basic medicines and referral services for further care. Once we had a group of 50 trained rural and urban health workers, many of them traditional midwives, we registered our health cooperative called Lok Swasthya SEWA Mandli, LSM. Like in the case of Sangini, LSM’s registration was a long struggle that lasted two years, as both these cooperatives were the first of their kind, and were breaking new ground. In addition, the cooperative authorities could not believe that a group of illiterate or barely literate workers could run their own organisation and take care of their own and others’ health. Again, persistence and patience by our SEWA sisters, continuous organising and building up their child care work and the strong support of SEWA, our union, helped to slowly remove the barriers to setting up this cooperative.
26Again, the solidarity model held us in good stead. Once LSM became functional, the government public health providers and the private sector found a willing and useful partner. We had expertise in organising women on health issues, and an “entry” to communities and families that was useful to all. Soon, we were asked to collaborate in training midwives for safe childbirth, in explaining the importance of immunisation, distributing contraceptives and implementing a tuberculosis (TB) control programme in a neighbourhood that is home to many SEWA members.
27In addition, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation invited LSM to run a low cost medicine shop-cum-rational therapeutics advisory centre in a large public hospital frequented by the working poor. They saw that our own smaller shop for our members was helping workers save their hard-earned money by offering lower prices for medicines. They provided us with about 500,000 Indian rupees or about 8,000 US dollars as a no interest loan to set up the centre in the hospital premises. This led to another such shop‑cumcentre in a second municipal hospital, located in a working class neighbourhood. As LSM now had a base in the hospital, our contacts with government doctors and others developed further, enabling us to help SEWA members and other workers to access low cost tertiary care, the cost of which generally leads to borrowing and debt among workers. Thus, solidarity between SEWA members and the general public was strengthened.
28Like its sister cooperative, Sangini, LSM’s now almost twenty-five years of organising workers into this cooperative and providing services to workers, resulted in a number of lessons and experiences which are useful for promoting solidarity, and the solidarity economy in general.
29First, health care to workers and others cannot be “delivered” by government and others. In a geographically dispersed country with a large population like India, it is difficult for government to reach local people in an effective and timely manner. Much has been written about this inability to reach “the last mile”. Numbers and geography apart, there are serious issues of poor governance, corruption, lack of accountability and little commitment to reach out to the poorest and most vulnerable. Besides, in a country of such diversity, it is hard for government officials to comprehend and then incorporate traditions and belief systems that influence behaviour and, ultimately, health and other outcomes.
30Instead, local communities, led by women, can take up issues affecting their own health like malnutrition or TB, and this can be enabled and supported by the government. Further, in a diverse country like India, one size does not fit all, and it is important for local people to decide on action for their own health, based on their own priorities and context. This does not mean that the government has no responsibility. What it does mean is that to ensure that their own children do not remain malnourished, communities, and especially women, need to be in charge, preferably through their own organisations like LSM. The government’s role is to guarantee and enable action by local communities, by building in flexibility into programmes and services, allowing them to mould and steer according to their specific need. And most importantly, local communities need to be empowered by financial resources over which they can make choices and can control. Thus, decision-making, control and ownership of action and services developed should rest with local communities, especially women, with government enabling, supporting and empowering them to act appropriately.
31Such ideas for decentralised action and control are not new in India, and have been mooted well before our independence, by planning committees such as the landmark Bhore Committee for health care. More recently, the late former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, introduced a constitutional amendment empowering local village councils or panchayats, and their counterparts in urban areas, the nagarpalikas, to function in a decentralised manner, with control of decision-making and some finances.
32Second, following from the above, local people, especially women workers can become competent and capable health workers, ensuring that all, especially the poorest and sickest, are reached. We have seen, time and again, how our LSM sisters, all trained health workers, have ensured that their neighbours take their regular TB medicines and are cured, have rushed a sick child or adult to further care as if they were their own, and have educated adolescents, women workers and others, with patience and care, about their bodies and how to stay healthy. Women workers, we learned, make the best frontline health workers. Fortunately, this has now been recognised by the government and its Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) programme of local women health workers.
33Third, organisations like LSM not only build solidarity across caste, class and religious lines through providing basic health services at people’s doorsteps, but also conserve hard-earned resources of workers through health education, providing referral linkages with affordable care, and through the sale of low-cost medicines. The latter are both allopathic and now increasingly ayurvedic medicines which LSM is licensed to manufacture, thus providing both services and employment to women who make and sell them.
34Fourth, like Sangini, LSM is financially viable and records profits each year which are distributed to its 1,500 shareholders. It has also been getting an “A” grade for the last fifteen years, and has been awarded the first prize for the last ten years by the Cooperative Department. All of this taught us that when organisations based on solidarity are run in a democratic, equitable and accountable manner, they can be sustainable and even thrive. It is important that the women workers themselves run them, with the support of professionals willing to work shoulder to shoulder with their sisters.
35Finally, in both Sangini’s and LSM’s case, capacity-building and ongoing mentoring played an important role in building up women’s knowledge and skills, their confidence and leadership, and in ensuring that good quality services reached other women workers of the informal economy. There is much that these dedicated women can do with a little self-belief and support from their own organisations.
36Our experiences in Sangini and LSM encouraged us to take another step to set up the National VimoSEWA Insurance Cooperative providing microinsurance to women in several states of India, and with shareholders from five states. VimoSEWA’s journey began with SEWA Bank and an act of solidarity by an external donor, the German Technical Support Organization (GIZ) which provided the seed money to get us started.
37Soon after SEWA Bank was set up in 1974 as a cooperative, providing integrated financial services like savings and credit, our members said that whatever little they earned was used up in times of crisis like sickness, accident, death of spouse or family member, and even at times of disasters like floods and fire. SEWA Bank tried to obtain insurance coverage for its members but was turned away by the nationalised insurance companies, the only ones allowed to function at that time. The companies told us that poor women were “bad risk” and not insurable. We tried to argue that it was precisely these women and their families who required a protective risk cover for survival and to help them emerge from poverty.
38About two decades later, in 1992, when SEWA’s membership crossed 50,000, the dialogue with the companies resumed. The timely investment by the GIZ to help set up an insurance unit moved the discourse further, and slowly we developed partnerships with the nationalised insurance companies by carrying their insurance products, processing our members’ claims and providing education on the concept of insurance itself.
39As our operations grew, we decided to register a cooperative, but as insurance is based on spreading the risk and building solidarity across large numbers of people, it was established as a national organisation. SEWA members from five states including Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat, where the SEWA movement originated, are shareholders. In addition, their organisations, savings and credit cooperatives, dairy cooperatives and others, including Sangini and LSM, also are shareholders. This has resulted in two layers of solidarity – between the workers and between their own organisations.
40Today VimoSEWA is one of the largest microinsurance organisations in India, serving over 100,000 families and growing. It is also the first such cooperative, entirely used, owned and run by women elected to the board as in the case of Sangini and LSM. VimoSEWA cannot yet be a fully-fledged insurer, as the licence for this requires a large capital requirement of about 25 million US dollars. However, we can work in partnership with insurance companies, with them bearing the risk and VimoSEWA undertaking several other functions: developing appropriate and affordable products, educating workers on insurance, selling these products once they are carried by the insurance companies, processing claims and maintaining a database for all insured workers and their families.
41After twenty years of providing microinsurance and five years as a cooperative, VimoSEWA is now viable. Its journey shows, yet again, that organisations based on solidarity can over time become viable. Sometimes the going is slow and the road is rough, but with persistence, good management by women workers supported by professionals, adhering to core values and systems of accountability, transparency and democracy, such membership based and worker-owned organisations can be sustainable.
42VimoSEWA also has many lessons to offer. Perhaps the biggest of all is that poor women workers are indeed insurable. They are not “bad risk” and can pool their earnings as premium, building on principles of mutuality and solidarity, to share in the good times and bad in each others’ lives.
43Second, when insurance products and services are designed according to workers’ needs and affordability, they are readily bought and the services are used in times of crisis. Most of the products and services presently available in the Indian market are not suitable for workers of the informal economy, and even less so for women. Initially, the insurance companies refused to cover gynaecological conditions, and it took much effort by VimoSEWA and others to convince them to do so. Similarly, occupational injuries were not always covered and we had to bring this to their notice repeatedly. In addition, some of the procedures of the companies were cumbersome and lengthy, and we had to work with the insurance companies to make them suit workers’ needs and their lives.
44Third, there is a huge gap in information and basic knowledge on the very concept of insurance, and that is where organisations like VimoSEWA can fill the gap. They are ready to do whatever is required, including going house to house, and can do so in a manner that is appropriate and suitable to workers, as the organisation is itself owned and led by workers.
45Fourth, working on microinsurance has led to a rich repository of data on the nature and magnitude of risks faced by workers and their frequency. While designing products for workers, this basic actuarial information and data is required and useful. Having this data, and in workers’ control, is an asset for the cooperative and its shareholders.
46Finally, as mentioned above, VimoSEWA is financially sustainable and also has robust worker-led management systems that are accountable and transparent. It has shown that one can both insure the poor and be a viable organisation.
47The three examples shared here show that the solidarity approach to social security and social protection is workable and sustainable in the long term. The evolution is gradual and there are many challenges, not the least of which is that the workers who run and own them, do not have the knowledge and skills initially to do so. But with time, patience and faith in their abilities, and ongoing capacity-building, they become capable and competent leaders and managers. They are committed to their own organisations, built with the hard-earned money of women like themselves, resulting in hardly any cases of fraud and dishonesty.
48Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we have faced is the struggle to convince the government authorities that such solidarity organisations can be viable and can in fact grow and thrive. There is little faith in women workers’ abilities to run their own organisations, even if they have the examples of cooperatives like SEWA Bank. Even though we are not asking for any grants or subsidies, just a chance to work together and support each other, the regulations and permissions are not easy to obtain. The most difficult is for VimoSEWA to build itself up into a fully-fledged insurer with reduced capital requirements. The insurance industry in India is still regulated, and there is little room for organisations that want to reach the poorest and most vulnerable, and with appropriate products and services. The appetite for taking risk by developing special regulations for insurance cooperatives serving the poor continues to be low.
- 1 Dr Jayati Ghosh was a key-note speaker at VimoSEWA’s National Microinsurance Conference in 2003, Ne (...)
49At the macro level, as the eminent economist, Dr Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, reminded us at a national conference1, initiatives such as VimoSEWA contribute towards macroeconomic stability. At the micro level, they show how basic services and entitlements can be designed to reach workers, and this knowledge has been shared frequently, and at district, state, national and global levels by all three cooperatives discussed here. VimoSEWA has served as an example for the national health insurance called Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). LSM has contributed its experiences to the national discussions on universal health care, especially how to organise and support local people to plan for their own health and to run low-cost medicine outlets. Sangini crèche workers contributed their experience of running low-cost but essential and comprehensive day care for low-income families to the government’s own efforts for child care in India. Sangini’s experiences helped to push for all-day care and for proper remuneration of the crèche workers. It also showed that malnutrition in young children can be addressed through such community-based, local efforts.
50Such policy action at district, state, national and even international levels are sometimes taken at SEWA’s behest, and other times we contribute to initiatives by government, international agencies and other unions and cooperative federations. For example, SEWA organised India’s first ever national microinsurance conference in New Delhi, where policy makers heard about small insurance products for the first time. The same was true for a national conference on occupational health and safety of informal women workers, a policy dialogue between researchers who had developed tools and equipment, working with SEWA members and our health cooperative, the workers, employers, international agencies like the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and government authorities.
51In recent years, a special policy platform created by the last government, called the National Advisory Council, incorporated many of SEWA’s experiences in social security, and women workers’ rights like those of street vendors and domestic workers, in recommendations to the government at that time. At the global level, SEWA’s experiences with the solidarity approach to social protection and in organising women workers more generally, found voice in the landmark WHO report on the Social Determinants of Health. All of this was possible because SEWA representatives were invited to serve on these committees, and ensured that workers’ voices were heard in all consultations and conferences.
52In addition to pushing for change through policy action in favour of informal workers, another advantage of this solidarity model of social protection is that it creates employment with dignity for thousands of women. In SEWA’s experience, women workers who were once exploited as homebased workers, or eked out a living as small farmers, feel empowered and strengthened by serving others and earning a decent living from it. If the government’s social security and social protection programmes were implemented by local, worker-owned organisations like Sangini, LSM and VimoSEWA, then thousands of women would get meaningful work with dignity. Over the years, we have found that small organisations, either sub-district or district level, and sometimes even state level ones, are most effective, as they remain close to their members, geographically and in spirit. Further, such decentralised organisations offer opportunities for local people, especially women, to participate for their voices to be heard and for their leadership to bloom via democratically elected boards and executive committees. These local, decentralised organisations can then be federated into state, regional and national ones, and even build up movements. Once such example is the SEWA-promoted, all-women state-level federation of women’s cooperatives. It has 106 cooperatives and this gives it the strength and bargaining power to negotiate for space within the male-dominated cooperative movement in India. It also ensures that local needs and priorities guide all action of the federation, and that members feel closely involved and own their own federation and processes.
53The other finding over the last thirty years from all three of our social security cooperatives is that not only are essential services provided at workers’ doorsteps, but the very act of doing so promotes trust in their own organisations, and hence further organising and solidarity, promoting a cycle of organising and solidarity that has a number of other spin-offs, including promoting the binding together of hitherto disparate groups of workers and their communities.
54Needless to say, all of the above involve a number of challenges, some of which have already been mentioned. From the very registration of these organisations, which often are the first of their kind, there are struggles. Then apart from shareholders capital, there is a need for resources and for investing in these kinds of organisations. Usually investors and donors are not keen to take risks by placing their money in these organisations. Thus, obtaining working capitals and grants is a challenge.
55Most importantly, developing such organisations takes time and long‑term investment in capacity-building, at a time when donors and others expect quick returns. We have found that capacity-building and mentoring are essential and must be at the pace of those concerned, sometimes quite fast, and at other times, slow and steady.
56There are also a number of regulatory barriers – laws and policies that do not support the growth and development of such organisations. The capital requirement for insurance is one such barrier that has already been mentioned.
57Finally, organisations have to be careful to develop future cadres of leaders and managers. They must ensure that there is neither mission drift nor “take-over bids” by political organisations, vested interests and other forces that are not congruent with the interests and well-being of the share-holders and members. This is easier said than done, and there are numerous examples in India where organisations have strayed far from their original objectives. But there are still many that remain true to their mission and remain rooted.
58These challenges notwithstanding, increasingly it is becoming clearer to us at SEWA that organising and the promotion of solidarity and the solidarity economy which is local and decentralised, and which promotes local, and especially women workers’ leadership, is the way of the future. It is this approach which promotes appropriate and affordable action for basic security, and is sustainable, equitable and furthers social justice and solidarity in the long run.
Chatterjee, M. and J. Macwan. 1992. Taking Care of our Children – The experiences of SEWA Union. Ahmedabad: SEWA.
Gandhi, M. K. 1909. Indian Home Rule or Hind Swaraj. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B2GRozT38B1eYWU0OTc5N2UtNGQyZC00YTlmLWI4N 2UtZjQ2ZTg4MzY3NTM5/edit?hl=en&pli=1
1 Dr Jayati Ghosh was a key-note speaker at VimoSEWA’s National Microinsurance Conference in 2003, New Delhi. This is taken from her remarks.
© Graduate Institute Publications, 2015