Organizing the unorganized workers: lessons from SEWA experiences.

Author:Nayak, Nalini
Position:By invitation - Self-Employed Women's Association


While in Asia and the developing world the unorganized workers have formed the bulk of the workforce in a country, an increasing number of workers seem to be falling into 'precarious work' and out of organized labor even in the developed world today. Advances in technology have changed the organization of work in the organized sector in the developed world and with the liberalization of economies in the developing world vast changes in production and labor organization have also taken place here. All these changes have not only changed the nature of work, but labor relations as well. Whereas there has grown a greater flexibilization of labor, there is also the invisibilization of labor relations--when labor relate to employers only through the internet. Such changes have also seen what has been referred to as the 'feminization of labor' whereby an increasing number of women have been drawn into the labor force although the data does not seem to reveal this in our country.

One of the major ways in which capital has expanded is therefore the further disorganization of labor and labor relations. But even before the expansion of capital in the post World War II period and till the present time, one of the features that characterizes the developing world is that production and large sections of workers remain in the unorganized sector. They have either been self employed, eking out a living in sectors like small scale fisheries, forest product collection and traditional production, or just been laborers in very small household enterprises like food production, agriculture, coir making, coconut oil production, and other smithy and indigenous handicrafts etc. In the last few decades some of these workers got inducted into production chain processes while they continued to work at home receiving production inputs from agents who act like the middlemen between the worker and the employer. While these workers contribute to the creation of the GDP of our countries and the vast production of handicrafts that India is famous for, there are still several of their trades that are not recognized or scheduled and hence they remain unrecognized, come under no social security net and they remain invisible. Large sections of these workers never had or have any workers rights. In the narrative that follows, the focus will be on these sections of workers and the issues around organizing them in India.

Some Characteristics

The unorganized sector is diverse and has varied features. Labor in one sub sector may receive a wage for work done, there are those who are self employed. Among the former, many may not come into contact with the actual employer, they may receive a piece rate wage and could be working in their own homes. In another sub sector of the self employed, many may be dependent on a natural resource or maybe dependent on just the public space, like a street vendor, and may or may not be dealing directly with a consumer. Hence work and production relations in this sector can also be very complex and succumb to various kinds of exploitative features.

Over the last 25-30 years, India has seen the development of a variety of movements and growth of organizations in these sectors. Most of these movements have sprung from the spontaneous mobilization of people against oppressive forces or regimes and projects that challenged their rights to livelihood. Some of these struggles have been sustained and remain dynamic, others have waned. Some of them have evolved as formal organizations with informal structures. Developing new structures is problematic as the livelihood issues are simultaneously community issues. Life in the community and livelihood are so intricately intertwined. Communities have their own norms that govern livelihood, even the access to resources and distribution of gains. What they assert through their struggles is the defence of a way of life and livelihood. The hierarchies of age and division of labor are very different from the way 'organizations' are structured today. Yet if the livelihoods have to be sustained in these communities, they have to organize as the modern state increasingly needs to appropriate resources or make use of cheap labor thereby dismantling communities and simultaneously livelihoods.

The access to the natural resource base like the forest, wetlands, rivers, oceans is complex. During these past centuries those who eke out a livelihood from these resources have also sustained these ecosystems with their communitarian norms of management and control. These resources are today being privatized on a massive scale despite the fact that the State had not earlier regularized the use of these resources; namely recognized the customary rights of the traditional users and streamlined other public use. Unlike in the case of the First Nation communities in the developed world, the Indian state had not negotiated the use rights of these resources very specifically. In some states of India, governments did recognize these rights, like the koliwadas (fishing community) in Mumbai for instance. But for a large part, it is only after they created a hue and cry on the promise of the Constitutional Rights that the government has begun recognizing the existence of these communities although not always legally provisioning for them vis a vis the resource on which their livelihoods depend. Despite its limitations, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 is one of the more positive results of collective action on the part of all the forest dwellers movements to get recognition of customary rights to forest users. Having been traditionally marginalized, workers in these natural resource based communities have also been on the periphery of other developments like education and hence have minimal access to information. They are therefore extremely vulnerable and in most cases they are being either forcefully ousted or have been cheated out of their rights and marginalized. Hence with no organizational base, the future of these communities is in jeopardy.

Organizing the Unorganized

Two organizational forms/movements are discussed here. One of them is the organization of artisanal fish workers and the other is the self employed women workers. The former commenced in a village community of fish workers in Trivandrum, Kerala Marianad, and the other with women reed workers, fish vendors and agricultural small farmers and wage workers when SEWA was organized in Kerala. The work with the fish workers commenced in the early 1970s and with the SEWA in the mid 1980s. Whereas both these were unorganized sectors, the trajectories of the movements and organizational strategies were in many ways very different. Essentially, whereas the former involved both men and women in one specific trade, the latter included only women but of several trades. In both these organizations I was one among a larger team/group/process made up both of members of the sector and 'outsiders'. I will reflect on them separately below.

Among Fish Workers

In the fishing sector, we did not commence with any political organizational awareness in the early 1970s. It was only when we got deeply into the daily lives of this community that we understood not only the intricacies of the fishery but also the reasons for...

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