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Work and the people’s sector

Dec 12, 2012

Founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association, Ela R Bhatt, talks on the theme, ‘Let the People’s Sector Flourish: The Journey of SEWA’ on Tuesday. Here is a brief excerpt from the talk.

Over all these years I have understood that SEWA is a celebration of work and organising, and will always remain so. It is the collective organised strength based on values that is our real capital. The principles which have guided us so far will take SEWA into the next 40 years,

My philosophy is contained in three words: women, work and peace. Here, let me talk on WORK and the people working.

Work is central to people’s lives, and especially to the lives of poor women. In SEWA, we have approached the question of work in several ways. First, we have dealt with women’s work from the perspective of a labour union. Through this approach, it became clear that Indian labour laws view work as a relationship between an employer and an employee, with a formal contract, regular working hours and a living wage. In the Indian context this leaves out 90 per cent of our workers, who have no fixed employer-employee relationship, no fixed place of work, and who do many kinds of work, often in the same day, or season to season. Earnings are so low that they have to work longer and longer hours, often ten to twelve hours a day, just to survive.

So we have begun, in the labour field, to think about how to define a “worker”, what kind of protection they need and what kind of social security. Hence our campaigns for law protection of livelihoods for street vendors and for the ILO Convention for homeworkers and domestic workers.

Second, we have approached work by addressing the practical need of the women for more employment and income and better links to the markets. We have found that with the proper inputs such as finance and training, work that is marginal to the market can begin to yield higher incomes. Also, in cases where returns are low due to unfair practices, gaining ownership of resources has been shown to raise incomes. Credit, technology, improved skills and better management all lead to better returns from work.

Third, we have approached work through macro-economic analysis. For example, the Government rarely allocates productive resources to women as they are not seen as part of the economy. These women are seen as objects of poverty reduction programmes and social safety nets, but not as active contributors to growth. Policy makers seem to think that growth comes primarily from the corporate sector or from the public sector. But in fact, most people work in what we call the “People’s sector”. That is why we in SEWA calculated the contribution of the informal sector to the economy as 63% of GDP, 50% of savings and 40% of exports.

Our policy makers see work as divided into sectors, and particularly into the private (corporate) sector and the public sector. However, the vast workforce of the People’s Sector do not fit into these categories, although they are linked to the Public and Private Sectors through various types of contracts for labour or services, and through production linkages. They sell their services, labour such as construction labour or agricultural labour, or as small producers, vendors, service providers. Most workers’ families especially in rural areas, use a combination of methods for their livelihood. They often organize themselves into formal or informal cooperatives, or chit funds, or self help groups, or farmers irrigation groups and the like. They are literally millions who are the basis of the country’s production systems yet remain undocumented, unrecognised hence not provided for or budgeted by the Government Plans,

It is evident that all three sectors are interdependent on each other. Much of the actual production is in the People’s sector, but the markets are controlled by the large private traders and corporate and infrastructure of electricity, transport etc. is controlled by the public sector. The interdependence is welcome but it has rarely been on equal terms. An artisan who makes products out of bamboo, faces the bamboo market dominated by monopolistic Forest Department, and market for finished product is dominated by a single trader company operating in many states. The forest dwellers who are the producers and users of bamboo suffer the deprivation. This is injustice. It makes the actual producers poorer.

If we are serious about creating abundant work opportunities for the people of India, we need to release the productive energies of the People’s sector to it fullest. We need to provide access to markets and capital to the Peoples Sector. We need to ensure better and adequate terms to trade to them by building their managerial and organizational capacities. We need to bring enabling environment of supportive policies at all the levels.

These policy analyses we learnt after many years of interacting with policy makers, but for most SEWA members their work is part of their lives, their families, their communities, their religion and faith and their personal identities. All this is reflected in the songs they sing as they work.

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