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Bhatt, Ela R.  (2003) Organising for Second Freedom - Ela R. Bhatt's Wolpe Lecture. Centre for Civil Society Wolpe Lecture: -.

The most sustained experience of my life since India’s Independence has been the search for the Second Freedom, the economic empowerment of the poor, toiling women of India. For me, this half a century has seen constantly renewed fulfillments, in spite of failures, disappointments, and even opposition, in my public life.

The most sustained experience of my life since India’s Independence has been the search for the Second Freedom, the economic empowerment of the poor, toiling women of

As the struggle for Independence was won, the atmosphere in the universities and the civic life was full of restless enthusiasm to rebuild the nation. I am a product of that early atmosphere. I eagerly remember those days in the university when I had enthusiastically joined the upcoming student leaders, including my future husband. I was a timid college girl, yet I had gathered courage to join the efforts, like so many other young people at that time, to try and make personal and public meaning of the recently gained freedom from foreign rule.

Ela R. Bhatt

Our teachers sent us out to the people of India, particularly to the rural poor. Our parents had their doubts, but they did not stop us from our journey to reach the rural poor. Over a period of time we realised that the right to vote was not enough for the poor and women. They wanted a voice and visibility. As the poor, they wanted more than just day-to-day survival. As women, they wanted opportunities to learn and to act. As workers in India’s unorganised sector, they wanted to be a part of the labour movement. As Dalits and minorities they wanted to move in from the margins to the mainstream. Yes, they wanted a voice and visibility. It took still more years for us to realise that this was not possible without access to and ownership of economic resources by the poor women. Coming out of their state of exploitation by family, society, and the State, the poor women wanted to enjoy what I call Doosri Azadi : Second Freedom.

The First Freedom, political power, the country had achieved in 1947. The Second Freedom, economic power, it is yet to be achieved. As I understood Mahatma Gandhi, economic self reliance was as important for him as political independence. He called economic poverty ‘a moral collapse’ of the society. True, political change or technological change does not necessarily remove poverty because it does not remove economic exploitation. The problem of poverty and the loss of freedom are not separate, as he said.

I have seen at close quarters, how a SEWA member experiences economic freedom. When she has a roof of her own, a farm of her own, a well of her own, or trees of her own, and as she moves towards full employment at her level, she has more ‘operational freedom’ on a day-to-day basis in her world of work. She arrives at a bargaining position in the dealings with the local vested interests, inside or outside her own home. Land reforms, green revolution, water management were the nationwide initiatives of the early years. It is in the later years that they gained operational meaning.

As soon as I passed my law degree (1954), I joined the Textile Labour Association the TLA founded by Gandhiji in 1917, a unique trade union built on the philosophy of trusteeship. The union aimed at the total development of the workers, not just economic. The TLA was known as ‘a laboratory of human relations.’ Here I learnt the first lessons of the trade union movement.

In 1971, migrant women working as cart-pullers in the city’s cloth market came to me in TLA, where I had started my work life working for textile mill workers of Ahmedabad. The women who lived on the footpath, were seeking help for better living conditions. Next month came the head loader women of the same cloth market, feeling agitated about very low rates of payment (30 paise per trip carrying the bale of cloth from a wholesaler to a retailer). They felt exploited by the traders. Then followed the used garment dealer women in search of credit facility from the recently nationalised banks. The women were paying 10 percent per day as interest rate to the moneylender. They felt enslaved to the lenders. Women vendors of downtown Manekchowk market came seeking protection from police harassment. And then came Hawa Bibi of Patan, a bidi roller who had lost her work after 20 years, from the contractor who first started rejecting 50 percent of her rolled bidis, complaining they were ‘bad’. And then ultimately he stopped giving her any material to roll bidis. Losing her livelihood, a very agitated Hawa Bibi came to the TLA office seeking ways to get justice. The Labour Commissioner’s office had said to her that she was not a ‘worker’ because she was ‘not working’. Working in her home, and on piece rate is not ‘work’ by law. That was 1971. Some of these urban, poor, self- employed women workers came to the meeting that I called in a public garden where we formed our trade union (1972). We called it the Self Employed Women’s Association, SEWA. Gandhian thinking has been the source of guidance for us in forming the SEWA union. We wanted to be both workers and citizens, and not remain on the margins of society.

Only two things were clear in my mind then. First, when 89 percent (now 92 percent) of the working population of the country engaged in the self-employed and the informal sector economy is outside the labour movement, there is no labour movement worth its name. Secondly, about 80 percent of women in India are rural, poor, illiterate or semi literate, and economically very active, so, in the women’s movement of India, it is these women who should be playing a leading role. Their major pressing concerns were of economic survival : poverty and exploitation. To fight them the poor have to organise and build up collective strength – only that much I knew. We had seen that amongst the poor, all women work. So, a labour union of poor women was the answer we found. Why women’s union? Because there is a significant relationship between being a woman, working in the informal sector and being poor. In the informal sector, there are more economically active women than men. And also women are poorer than men in the sector, because women are working in lower income activities, most often as casual workers, sub-contract workers, petty vendors and hawkers.


But nothing is easy. The Registrar of Unions was not ready to register us as a trade union in 1972, because we did not fit into his definition of a trade union. For him, garment workers, cart pullers, rag pickers, weavers, shepherds, embroiderers, dais, forest produce gatherers were not ‘workers’. The Indian Census did not count them amongst working population nor did our economists. Such invisibility of women’s informal work kept them powerless as producers, traders and workers. This has become a matter of serious concern about equity ever since. If women’s invisible informal work were to be fully counted, both the share of informal workers in the workforce and the estimates of the contribution of the informal sector to the total output would increase.

Organising the informal sector is of absolutely critical importance to informal sector workers themselves and to the labour movement more broadly. Only when they are organised, informal sector workers can gain visibility and a voice and can demand their needs and their concerns be addressed at different levels. Without being organised, they remain invisible to policy makers and isolated from mainstream social and economic institutions, particularly if they are women. Because of their invisibility and isolation, their problems are not well understood (if at all).

SEWA as a trade union started in 1972, it has a membership of 5,30,000 self employed women. SEWA also organizes members tradewise in co-operatives, amounting to 86 cooperatives so far. Joint action of trade unions and co-operatives has been the strategy of SEWA, in order to make a presence felt in the national economy.

For SEWA, women’s empowerment means full employment and self reliance. When there is an increase in her income, security of work and assets in her name, she feels economically strong, independent, autonomous. Her self reliance is not only considered on her own individual basis, but also organizationally. She has learnt to manage their own organization. She sits on the boards and committees of her own union and co-operative and takes decisions. She has learnt to deal with traders, employers, officials and bankers on equal terms, where earlier she was a worker serving her master. She knows that without economic strength she will not be able to exercise her political rights in the village panchayat. However, basically, she has to have adequate work, that ensures her income as well as food and social security, that ensures at least healthcare, childcare, insurance and shelter. Unlike those in the formal sector, the workers and the producers in the unorganized, informal, self employed sector have to attain full employment on their own, through their own organizations.

Another component of empowerment for poor women is self reliance. Self reliance in terms of financial self sufficiency and management, as well as in terms of decision making. For them, collective empowerment is more important than individual. With collective strength, she is able to combat the outside exploitative and corrupt forces like money lenders or police or black marketers. As her economic strength and self reliance grows, her respect within the family and the community soon follows.

Kamala, a bidi worker became a senior organizer in SEWA. Today she heads her caste council. She is helping the community take larger decisions. Her SEWA union committee has been a training ground for her public life.

Which types of organizations can lead to empowerment? Not organizations which are charitable in nature or which are controlled by one person. Truly empowering ones should belong to the women workers themselves. It should be owned by them and democratically controlled by them. The dairy co-operative of the women in village Rupal put up a severe fight to the land grabbers (men) of the village who wanted to usurp the co-operative’s fodder farm. ‘Vanraji’ the Women’s Tree Growers Co-operative fought the Bharwads (shepherds) in court, to retain the waste land acquired from the government for collective plantations. ‘Haryali’ the Vegetable Vendors Co-operative managed their co-operative so well that from their surplus, they gifted a building to the SEWA union. The union helped the vendors in the co-operative to win a case in the Supreme Court to establish their right of place in the Manek Chowk Market of Ahmedabad where they have been vending for the last three generations, when they were being pushed out from there by the authorities.

These organizations help their members to enter the mainstream. The SEWA Cooperative Bank could bring the illiterate, poor women workers and producers in the mainstream, formal banking system, who are able to deal with the Reserve Bank of India at par with other government banks; the auditors of the Federal Bank have to discuss (may be for the first time) banking and audit issues with the Board of Directors of SEWA Bank, who are self employed women representatives of artisans, labourers, hawkers and vendors, sitting together at the same table. This provides a unique opportunity for exposure and dialogue to both sides. Sure, SEWA Co-operative Bank would not have been able to perform effectively if there was no SEWA, the umbrella union organization of self employed women. Similarly, SEWA would not have been able to take up causes effectively, if there was no standby in the form of SEWA Bank, to provide financial support to SEWA Members.

The collectiveness of the organization generates tremendous power and strength for its members, even in their individual lives. Famidabi of Bhopal, a bidi worker, on her way to attend the bidi workers meeting in Ahmedabad, dropped her ‘burqa’ (veil) for ever. Karimabe, leader of chindi workers of Dariapur, openly confronted her own brother who represented the employers, and she representing the chindi workers while negotiating a wage rise with the Labour Commissioner.

When women organize on the basis of their work, their self esteem grows and she realizes the fact that she is a ‘worker’ a ‘producer’ an active contributor to the national income and not merely somebody’s wife, mother or daughter. While participating in the organization and management of her cooperative or union, her self confidence and competence grows, a sense of responsibility grows, leadership within her grows. SEWA - UNESCO study of 873 SEWA leaders, found : 52% of them perceive themselves as the head of the household and 20% as joint heads. The same self worth is reflected in their answers: It is necessary to be (i) economically strong, (ii) for women to own assets, (iii) since women work equal to men, they should have equal rights. All women surveyed 100% answered as above, and, 67% of the leaders also added to the last statement, saying that women work more than men.

When women are workers/producers and form their own organizations, they are also able to break new grounds; Examples include, (i) Teachers and mothers forming SEWA’s Childcare Co-operative; (ii) Doctors and dais form health care cooperative that traditional midwives runs drug counters at municipal hospitals thereby propogating the use of rational drugs vis-à-vis brand named patent drugs, (iii) ‘Soundarya’ the cleaners’ Co-operative won a historic court case establishing their right to negotiate employment conditions with the Company’s Employees’ Union.

SEWA has made an effort to federate these cooperatives serving their needs for technical and managerial assistance in production, and marketing while SEWA Bank provides the financial services.

Cooperatives and Trade Unions are two structures which satisfy the needs of women workers and small producers of the weaker sections, because these organizations are member-owned, member controlled and democratic in nature. They are both part of already established, mainstream, national and international structures having networks all the way down to their members. Both Co-operatives and Trade Unions started off as movements of the poor disadvantaged working class. It is only in the last few decades that trade unions have bcome a movement limited to those in the formal sector i.e. in industrial plants and offices, and co-operatives, a vehicle for mostly the better off farmers and traders. We need to go to the roots of the Co-operatives, which arose from the labour movement.

Interaction between Co-operatives and Trade Unions is mutually strengthening to each other, in order to make a dent in the national economy, and in raising the bargaining power as well as the political visibility of the poor.

Policy Impact

SEWA has consciously and consistently perceived its role as influencing the policy-making process by participating as a representative organization of the unorganized sector workers. For them the bargaining and negotiating is with the state and public policies. This means creating impact to influence, educate and reorient the direction of change as envisaged by policy makers. It may be making amendments in law or lobbying for new law e.g. for homeworkers or street vendors. It may be related to reclaiming the right to have access to credit or raw materials or information, know-how, or market infrastructure. Grassroots, national, and international levels are involved in formulating policies, hence as a representative organization of self-employed workers, we have to be effective at all these levels.


While talking about future of women workers, all workers for that matter, amongst all challenges, globalisation is most recent and perhaps the biggest one. Because some basics of trade unionism are changing with globalisation through the enormous increase in the power of transnational corporations. There is a decline in the state’s role of administering the social compromise which the transnational capital no longer needs because it now operates at a global level where it can escape the political control of society at national level. Also trade unionism is changing, and will change still more, through the rise of a global labour market. Countries underbid each other in an effort to preserve or attract foreign investment. At the end, it is workers who suffer. This is why the challange of the globalisation of capital is above all a challange of unions’ internationalism. In fact, it seems real trade union movement is yet to be built.

Therefore, we as women workers have to consider a political agenda, a trade union agenda and most importantly an organising agenda.

Let me dwell on organising. At world level, only 13% or so of wage workers are organised into unions, and if the informal sector is added, this figure would drop to 4 or 5%. In Japan it fell from 56% to 25% during the last decade. In the USA it fell from 35 to 13%. Northern Europe is an exception where the workers have held on their own.

Much has to do with the changing structure of the enterprise. Most companies are reducing direct employment to a core workforce, and then subcontracting their operations. The modern company is mainly the coordinator of work done on its behalf by others. Sub-contracting cascades down from one sub contractor to the other, eventually ending up with the homebased worker, with conditions and wages worsening as one moves to the outer circle.

What the unions have not done is to follow their members and to follow the work. Their membership has shrunk as their core constituency has shrunk. This is the story of the industrialised countries. We in India too are moving on the same track.

For this reason, the organising of the informal sector is a vital necessity for the trade union movement, also in what remains of the formal sector. The informal sector is growing everywhere, in industrialised and developing countries both. The European Unions used to call it ‘atypical’ work, but what is becoming, ‘atypical’ is permanent, regular, paid employment.

But the good news is that workers in informal employment are taking the situation into their own hands. Being workers, they do what workers do naturally whenever they have a chance : they organise.

Successful organising in the informal sector, and also in the service trades, means women in the trade union movement. If we are serious about organising the majority of workers, it needs to open the unions for more to women than has been the case so far. We women need to enter the union movement in a big number. Our number has been in the informal sector not formal sector because, a vast majority of workers in the informal sector is women including all those in casual, temporary, part time employment. Opening trade unions to the informal sector workers or women not only means taking them on board and the specific demands of women, but also changing the work style and the culture of trade unions movement.

These workers rarely engage in the typical collective bargaining, although they do social bargaining. It calls for a re-thinking on what is worker, what is union. This kind of organising can only be done by unions that see themselves as a social movement, it cannot be done by companies.

This brings me to our structures. We need to ask ourselves whether our present structures are the most effective ones to respond to the challanges of globalisation. I am not only referring to the need to overcome the fragmentation of the movement because of a multiplicity of organisations who perpetuate political divisions which have already become irrelevant.

Other questions arise. What sense does company based unionism make at a time when companies are merging or are being taken over so frequently? Do even industrial unions make sense at a time when such boundaries are shifting in economic reality – and – also workers change employers several times in their working lives, with periods of unemployment in between? Why should they have to change unions every time they change employment?

As Dan Gallin says, can we think of one union card for life? Should we not make our organising job easier for the members? We need to think again about the role of general unions in the new organising context. Who can be our allies in the labour movement? I suggest cooperatives. We have to study/what extent a joint action of union and cooperatives be a strategy to impact the government policies in the new economy.

Lastly, capital has long ceased to bother about national borders. Borders are dissolving anyway in larger political and economic entities. Trans-border unions is another thought that need s to be considered today. International unionising has become a necessity when globalisation imposes stresses on union organisation. These will be pressing questions for women workers in near future.

In essence, informal sector is the future of the labour movement, where women will be leaders.

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