Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Organizing the Unorganized Workers: Lessons from SEWA Experiences

Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Organizing the Unorganized Workers: Lessons from SEWA Experiences

Article excerpt


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. …

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