Labour with dignity

Hansiba women - emroidering

Traditional embroidery from Gujarat
Copyright: Priyali Sur

India is busy deliberating on its next possible Prime Minister- Narendra Modi, who has been marketing his model of development in India’s Gujarat. But in the dry and arid hinterland of India’s western state , one woman who believes in Gandhi’s ideals is working tirelessly to uplift women.The white–silvery shimmering line that blurs at a distance is just a mirage. There is no trace of water for miles together in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. Parched, brown land spreads across in a tiled pattern in this beautiful desert. But there is no sign of any life, not a single tree, no desert animals, no birds, just empty stretches of aridness and a hot salty desert wind.

Amidst this wilderness, is a young girl draped in a blue sari wearing black gum boots – with her 5-month-old baby tied to her back and raking salt in the brackish waters of a salt pan under the scorching afternoon sun. Kalpa has been a salt worker or “Agariya” ever since she can remember. Born in the Agariya tribes that lead a nomadic life spending eight to nine months in a year producing salt in the Rann, she says this is what she has done all her life, but she is determined that her daughter will follow a different path.

raking salt

At the salt marsh in the Rann of Kutch
Copyright: Priyali Sur

India’s first trade union for women

Enabling Kalpa dream big for her child by providing child care centres or balwadis and educational facilities for children in this far-flung corner is SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), India’s first trade union for women that was started by a lawyer and a follower of Gandhi, Ela Bhatt in 1972.  “At that time (1972) there were so many women who were economically active but not recognized by the law or even recorded in the census of India as workers despite working for 10-12 hours a day. They were unprotected and vulnerable, despite being almost 89 percent of India’s labour force at that time,” says Bhatt.

Working with the Textile Labour Association in 1972, Ela Bhatt felt there was a desperate need to organize these unskilled women to give them more bargaining power in the job market. It was also the year that Rose Schneiderman, one of the pioneers of the international women’s labour movement, credited with the coining of the most famous phrase “bread and roses” passed away. By then, the world had seen many women unions such as the Women’s Trade Union League, but in India, no one had heard of it and it remained an alien idea. So when Ela Bhatt went to register SEWA, she faced what she calls “conceptual resistance.” She says it took almost a year to convince the registrar of trade unions that these women too are workers and they too have the right to be registered.

Women construction workers

Once registered, SEWA soon branched out in different labour sectors to fulfil its promise of full employment and self reliance to women by providing work, income, food and social security. It revolutionized this coming together of women by adopting the cooperative structure. “Being a Gandhian, I always believed in forming of organizations namely union, namely cooperative, because in such structures the members themselves are the owners,” says Bhatt.

One such member owner is Galal Ben. A mother of three, she is part of SEWA’s cooperative society for women construction workers called Rachaita Bandhkam Mandli. A strong and robust woman, her physical appearance matches her mental strength. For 15 years she has been working at building construction sites as a daily wage labourer, grinding cement and carrying huge loads of bricks on her head. But for 12 hours of hard physical labour she would get paid only a paltry amount, anything between 35 to 80 rupees a day. There were also days when she would be without work. But after joining a cooperative society, with 300 other women labourers like her, she is now ensured of work every single day. Daily wages too have gone up to almost Rs 400 per day, thanks to the elimination of middle men. “Today I earn triple of what my husband earns. He treats me like an equal and the society too respects me. Like any other modern city woman I too use a mobile phone”, says Galal, proudly displaying her cell phone and the pictures of her children, all of whom go to school.

To read the complete article, visit DW Women Talk Online –

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