Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Sonia George, General Secretary of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Kerala

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with cooperative and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) policy makers, researchers and practitioners from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work. On this occasion, the ILO interviewed Sonia George, General Secretary of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Kerala.

Article | 28 March 2022

Could you tell us about yourself?

I was part of student movement which inspired me to join the struggle of the marginalized communities. This really turned my life in search of spaces where my knowledge and skills could be used to support women who are in the lower strata of society. It was never a one-sided empowerment approach. The search always crisscrossed with issues of intersectionality which the society dares to raise. SEWA provided a combined space for the political, theoretical and the practical. In between I was able to finish my Ph. D in International Relations which provided me with a learning process to work with more clarity and vision in SEWA.

When was SEWA Kerala established?

SEWA-Kerala was established in the early 1980s. It got realized as part of a search to find alternative livelihoods for women workers who had lost their livelihoods as a result of the economic crisis and its impact on traditional economy. The initiative started as an attempt to bring women in these traditional sectors to get set in alternate livelihoods like domestic work. A collective of domestic workers was formed through skill building, capacity building and raising the worker consciousness. This process paved way to the recognition of organizing a sector of workers, who were otherwise so scattered and exploited. Private homes were never imagined as a workspace and domestic workers who work inside such spaces as workers. Through the support of the collective, minimum wage, working conditions with off pay, and job cards became regularized for the members.

Who are the women workers that SEWA Kerala works with?

From a single sector, SEWA Kerala has extended its organizing network to various sectors in the informal economy like Reed workers, fish workers, agricultural workers, food workers, different groups of home based workers, street vendors, tailors, and own account workers.

What is the role that SEWA Kerala plays in relation to its members?

The main priority of SEWA is to bring together the most informal and unorganized workers in their local areas. Trade wise organizing will facilitate the workers to bring together their issues in the work and to take it through different action plans. These includes bringing workers together in collectives to attain conditions of decent work, advocacy activities for proper recognition and rights as workers. Equipping workers through skill building activities, professionalizing approach and to support the livelihood activities like marketing initiatives have become a structural pattern of the organization. Building models of social security through local methods also is a priority. For instance, everyday a worker has to put a specific amount to her contribution and the same amount would be deducted from the employer towards her welfare and saved in the local banking system.

In SEWA Kerala how do social and solidarity economy (SSE) units of women informal economy workers such as cooperatives, collectives, self-help groups, and associations benefit their members and communities?

SEWA Kerala's first initiative of bringing domestic workers together in their own solidarity organization was a challenge. The attempt was to recognize women's work and skills which otherwise was only performed within their households as family responsibilities. The training and capacity building sessions allowed the workers to gain confidence and raise their consciousness as workers. The collectives helped regularized a common minimum wage with work conditions and assurance of jobs. These practices of fair working conditions slowly gained space in the public consciousness towards recognizing domestic workers and their rights. It is a long struggle but building up micro-level models of social solidarity economy ensured the possibilities of such collectives towards formalizing informal work.

Subsequently more of such workers’ collectives, notably those among reed/bamboo workers, food workers, and fish workers, were facilitated. Such locally supported models can serve toward members’ earning decent and sustainable livelihoods. Each sector has its own specificities and challenges and was conceptualized carefully with regard to its sustainability possibilities. Bringing workers in a service sector requires a different effort and experience altogether than a producer cooperative. Employer-employee relationship with individual workspace and the collective bargaining experiences totally vary from other workspaces. Working in others’ homes is normally considered as a private business where no scope of collective action was seen as possible. The collectives that brought employment professionalization with guaranteed responsibilities for the workers have broken that notion. My Fair Home Campaigns initiated by IDWF (International Domestic Workers Federation) have created a space to dialogue with the employers which emerged as a new form of collective bargaining. The combination of primary producer collectives and service sector collectives stands unique in the organizing experiences of SEWA. This has improved the situations of the workers in the transition to formality, but the challenges are much more.

Domestic workers’ collectives have led to the organizing of domestic workers throughout the state, and it has given a recognition to this work which was otherwise neglected in the labor discourse. The collective experiences have regularized wages and other entitlements for the workers. It enabled the atmosphere for policy discussions around this group of workers. Professional approaches to the work have questioned the inequalities that existed in the work sphere with representations of dignity and collective strength. While the other sectors support workers to get visibility in terms of their production with specific skills improvements either to the traditional or non-traditional work performances, SEWA builds on exploring the trade approaches and marketing possibilities. This led to the realization of ‘SEWA Livelihood’.

During the COVID-19 crisis how have these SSE units responded to the needs of their members and communities?

Domestic workers were one of the first groups of workers who have lost their livelihoods from the onset of the pandemic. When the workers were asked by their employers not to come to work, their collectives demanded wages or partial wages for the workers. Most of them have received such payments which created a buffer for the workers in the midst of job losses of other family members. The collective was able to make the employers responsibility visible in such a crisis situation. As the collective administration has properly documented all the services it offers and the details of the employers who register for a service, letters were sent to individual employers to support the workers in the crisis. These conversation with the employers generated a sense of responsibility amongst the employers. It also helped that the collective has the support of the trade union. The office bearers of the collective are trade union committee members. Through its bargaining strategies, the collective played the role of an mediator in a service sector where direct employment relationships exist.

COVID-19 context has made us to rethink the limitations of the existing work models for the informal sector and to restructure according to the collective needs. One such experience was the transportation difficulties that the women workers face as all public transport mechanisms stopped. That had helped us to think about a sub-collective to support the delivery services according to the orders. This has developed a new interface for the workers’ existence in the new-normal situations. The approach to boost the local economy through joint efforts of traditional workers and new generation with technology and mobility were successful. This approach provides answers to many pertinent questions related to sustainability, education, unemployment, and IT linkages.

One of the successful attempts was to bring together fisherwomen to adapt to new forms of value addition and marketing. For example, the online fish sale through the fisher women collective became possible through the COVID-19 imposed threats to their livelihoods. This enabled the workers to go beyond their traditional thinking and to link themselves with new possibilities.

In SEWA Kerala what do you see as the key elements of a strategy for building resilience and preparedness among women informal economy workers against future crises?

There are many intertwining concerns in the patterns of informal economy work. For a country like India, caste, class and gender play a crucial role in determining one’s identity and also livelihoods options. This positionality determines the right to resources, and ownership in case of commons. It could reversely determine their social status with respect to particular jobs, place of work, work behaviours, and working conditions. Every sector that we engage in have these complexities which may be easily understood through an intersectionality approach. The models that are created are enabled to challenge such systemic practices. Introduction of uniforms while in work and skills in particular areas of domestic work have challenged the traditional caste, class and patriarchal approaches with regard to domestic workers. The same concerns are applicable in the fisheries sector, and among reed/bamboo, agricultural, and food workers. Carefully modulating the work while taking into consideration those serious structural concerns is the backbone of such collective models.

This approach could emerge as a successful model of entrepreneurship that enables the workers to face the crisis in a resilient platform. Dilemma of physical/virtual binary have perplexed the livelihood search of the poor, informal economy workers. Collective efforts have enabled the workers to overcome this dilemma through interfacing various options of tradition, skills, education, infrastructure, and technology through intersectional approaches. The power of organizing is the basic resilience mechanism that SEWA has proved in all extraordinary situations. More locally sustainable models of economy and life can only support the women workers during the crisis. Local governance infrastructure can facilitate this process to a large extent. Different sectors of workers need vary and also their collective capacities. It is important to develop the multiple skills and also to protect the access to natural and other resources of the workers. Customary rights of the communities have to be safeguarded in that process.