Two Sides of the Same Coin: Work and Social Security for Informal Women Workers

Mirai Chatterjee, Chairperson of SEWA Cooperative Federation, explains the importance of organising unions and cooperatives to economically empower informal workers and boost their self-reliance as many of them continue to face poverty, have little to no social protection and rely on unstable incomes.
Two Sides of the Same Coin: Work and Social Security for Informal Women Workers

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Savita is an agricultural labourer and the village’s midwife. One day her husband had a stroke and had to be rushed to the hospital. As she was not aware of the government’s health insurance, her family was not enrolled in it. She borrowed from the local moneylender at 5 per cent interest per month and sold her buffalo to pay for his treatment. She also lost her daily wages as a labourer and now worries about how she will pay off her debt.

Ayesha is a home-based garment worker. She gets materials to sew from a contractor in her neighbourhood and must sew a dozen sari petticoats to earn enough to keep her children in school. Her youngest child is only two years old, and she needs full-day childcare so that she can afford food for the family. She does not think it is worthwhile leaving the little one for the three hours offered by the government’s centre - dropping and fetching her child for such a short duration would cost her more time.

Savita and Ayesha are like millions of other informal women workers in India and beyond. Worldwide, ILO estimates that 61 per cent of the global workforce is engaged in the informal economy. The figures are much higher for workers in the global South. In India, 93 per cent of all workers are in the informal economy with no guaranteed work and unstable income, as well as little social security or social protection. Fortunately, the conditions have improved in the last few years - now coverage like health insurance is being extended to more citizens than before. However, social protection is still not universal in India and the most vulnerable members of society such as migrant workers, informal women workers and those living in the remote desert, mountain and forest regions remain unprotected.

Based on years of experience, SEWA learned that social security and social protection must at least include health care, childcare, insurance, pension, and housing with basic amenities like a tap and toilet in every home.

The Self-Employed Women’s Association is a national trade union of 2.5 million informal women workers in 18 states of India. It is also a movement of membership-based, solidarity organisations such as cooperatives. SEWA organises women into unions and cooperatives for their economic empowerment and self-reliance. Fifty years ago, Ela Bhatt, SEWA’s founder, was moved by the exploitation and many injustices faced by informal women workers. She soon understood that if women and their families were to emerge from poverty, then improving work conditions and income, food and social security at the household level is essential. Based on years of experience, SEWA learned that social security and social protection must at least include health care, childcare, insurance, pension, and housing with basic amenities like a tap and toilet in every home. Our members also taught us that “work security and social security are two sides of the same coin” and that having one without the other meant they could not achieve economic empowerment and self-reliance.

Also on the Forum Network: Lessons from the Field: What we can learn from women in rural villages—and why they need our collective support by Gülden Turktan, President, IWF Turkey

Rural women offer great potential for all our futures simply because they are the cornerstones of our food safety and environmental protection. These women are workers without pay— completely leaving aside the gender pay gap—but they are at the same time smart business partners and workers.

The road to work and social security has been one of long and protracted struggles. SEWA began organising street vendors, home-based workers, and women farmers for their rights, without which ensuring work and income security was impossible. Street vendors are among our earliest members, providing a wide array of goods for consumers at affordable prices. They pooled their earnings to set up SEWA Bank and helped it grow with their keen business sense and financial discipline. We organised childcare for them while they were out at work, and they pushed us to provide insurance and health care.

Yet, for as long as we can remember, they have been harassed, forcibly evicted, and branded “a public nuisance”. In 2014 the Indian parliament passed a law protecting their livelihood after a sustained campaign uniting street vendors across India over forty years. There are hundreds of such examples of organising for the protection and promotion of decent work and justice in the workplace, whether in the marketplaces, in the fields and forests or the home, as in the case of home-based workers such as those producing garments. Along with livelihoods, women have insisted that they need social security like health care. “Our bodies are our only assets,” they explain. They also emphasise the need for a comprehensive approach to social protection - including as many elements as possible.

Over fifty years of organising informal women workers, we have learned some important lessons. First and foremost, is the importance of organising. If workers are to obtain their rightful place in the economy and society, they must organise—unite and build their solidarity across caste, community, gender, and geographic regions. Uniting and building their own membership-based, democratic, economic organisations is the first and essential building block in the struggle for justice.

But organising is not easy. It is a slow process of coming together, acting collectively for the common good, building trust across the many barriers that divide us and ultimately pushing for changes—in the home, in the community and the economy and society at large.

Next, workers need to build their own, sustainable, and representative organisations—owned, managed, and used by the poor. These organisations, like cooperatives, not only address their needs and offer them decent work but also unleash their creative energies. They develop constructive alternatives to the economic structures that oppress, bind, and restrict them in their quest for self-reliance.

Informal workers and their organisations need to form alliances and build up a grassroots-level mass movement for change across continents.

Further, we have seen that while work and income security are the glue that brings women together, four essential courses of action must be taken simultaneously:

  • Building Voice and Representation through organising and building economic organisations, as mentioned above.
  • Financial Inclusion through the provision of integrated financial services - savings, credit, insurance, pension, and financial literacy—and primarily to women. Asset-building should be undertaken and recorded in women’s names.
  • Social Security—universal health coverage, childcare, insurance, and shelter providing basic amenities.
  • Capacity-building to enhance technical capabilities and skill-building, leadership and managing workers’ own organisations.

All of these need to be acted upon in an integrated and holistic manner. One without the other will have a limited impact.

Finally, we need to organise across organisations and geographic areas. Informal workers and their organisations need to form alliances and build up a grassroots-level mass movement for change across continents. We must build our alliances for work and social security, through our own solidarity organisations, because it is only these that will lead to the emergence from poverty and a life based on dignity and self-reliance for all.

To learn more, read the OECD report on Informality and Globalisation
Globalisation and rapid technological change have radically transformed labour markets, affecting the lives and prospects of billions of workers. Those in the informal economy, the vast bulk of the workforce in the Global South, have been bearing the brunt. This report is for policy makers seeking to address the factors that make those workers in informality vulnerable.

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Go to the profile of Elizabeth Villagomez
10 months ago

A new social contract and deeper democracy, in other words, the opposite of what is happening in many countries of the Global South, is needed for all of these ideas to really move forward. It is sad to see how dictatorial and anti democratic decisions are being implemented with no opposition from voters or repressed opposition from some leaders. The lack of information on availalbe social protection or the destruction of programmes (in Mexico for example) shows a lack of knowledge based decision making and misguided austerity measures hurting the most vulnerable.