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Better ways of working

By Ela Bhatt and Renana Jhabvala

Puriben Ahir's whole life in the desert region of Banaskantha, Rajasthan, has been a search for ways to make enough to eat, drink, have a decent life. For her, work is life. But through SEWA's cooperative and decentralised methods of production and distribution she has found a better way of working. Her embroidery links her, her family and her village to people everywhere. Her thread brings investment and knowledge and skills into her village

The idea of work

A woman who works for over eight hours a day stitching garments or rolling bidis in her home is often not counted a worker; she is viewed as a housewife doing a little something in her "leisure-time". A street vendor selling vegetables or cutlery is also not a worker, he is a "nuisance" to be removed by the police as soon as possible. A woman who spends the entire day looking after her cattle, weeding her farm, collecting firewood

and caring for the family is a rural "housewife". Is a worker then only a man working in a factory or an office? What is the idea of work that downgrades most forms of work and only recognises certain limited forms?

These are important questions for a trade union like the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), whose members do not easily fall into defined categories. We have based this paper on our experiences of SEWA, with women who are economically

insecure and for whom survival is a struggle. They look forward to the right type of work for themselves and their men and their children - work which will take them out of poverty and vulnerability. However, the laws and policies that these women face are based on attitudes and theories about work that are far from the reality on the ground. Work is seen as labour, or as jobs where there is an "employment relationship". Only a certain type of work is productive and worthy of investment and credit; most other work is "unproductive".

Definitions of work

Mainstream economics uses the terms "labour" and "employment" for work. Although there are alternative theories of economics, most notably the Marxian approach, today neo-classical theories have come to dominate the thinking on economics in most countries. In this paper, we will be focusing on the concept of work as it is used in neo-classical economics, which assumes that in modern society a person is only able to live if he/she is connected with the economy through the market. Although economics is about choices, in fact to continue to live a person has to labour - it is something they are forced to do in order to satisfy their multiple wants.

Labouring has always been identified with onerous activity. It is derived from the Latin (labour), implying toil, distress and trouble. Labour are meant to do heavy, onerous activity"¦and is derived from the Latin 'trepateiure', meaning to torture with a nasty instrument. And the Greek word for labour 'panos' signifies pain and effort, and has the same root as the word for poverty, 'penia' (Standing).

Employment is a somewhat broader concept than labour and is used in different ways. It is mainly used to determine the number of people engaged in work through earning an income, engaged in production for the market. Employment became an important measure when "full-employment" was one of the main goals of policies and responsibilities of governments.


The Indian perspective on work

Anthropologists discuss different ways in which cultures view themselves. Louis Dumont defines two ways of self-definition by cultures - individualism and holism. In an individualistic society a person defines himself independent of relationships and based on "impersonal" elements such as abstract rights, attributes, desires, preferences and even professional occupations. In holistic societies an individual defines himself in relation to society as a whole and sees himself as the nexus of a web of relationships.

The meaning that people attach to work varies in individualistic and holistic societies. "Holistic meaning attaches significance to one's work because it is an integral part of a whole which commands the allegiance and assent of a community; individualistic meaning by contrast is a significance that one creates oneself through work. Holistic meaning requires that work be embedded in the cultural fabric, that it be an expression of one's relationship to the cosmos rather than simply a matter of earning one's daily bread. Individualistic meaning requires that one be in control of process and product, without which the very process of creating meaning becomes unthinkable" (Marglin and Marglin: 225).

In the modern economy the idea of work is purely individualistic. The worker is one who enters the market and exchanges her work for money because the only way she can meet her basic needs is as a consumer. The person whose identity is that of a worker and a consumer in a market-dominated society acquires a certain identity and a relationship with her work. The worth of her work is the worth of the income she receives. Often her work may be physically hard, as is generally the case with labour. Often, she may feel bad about her work because she does not feel part of the results or she feels exploited. In these cases she attempts to do as little work as possible for the income she receives. And she compensates the unpleasantness by consuming 'leisure'. Work and social systems are closely interrelated.


In a country like India , attitudes of people towards their work are determined by an interplay of cultures and economic forces. The modern economy brings about a mindset of competition, individualism and a drive towards ever expanding consumerism. On the other hand, cultural and traditional ways of thinking are often in a different direction. There is a mix of the individual and the holistic. We will try to describe people's thinking and feeling about their work drawing on our experience with women in SEWA. ******

Work and social systems

In India , social systems have always been more or less synonymous with the caste system, and social relations were defined by relations within castes and between castes. The caste system has been both extolled for its durability and adaptability and vilified for its hierarchies and its injustices. The role of women in these social systems has been written about extensively. Although women's roles were well defined and lead to a certain amount of security, there were definite inequalities within the relationship, which often lead to a downgrading of women's work and position.

Although generally descriptions of the caste system identify four major castes, in practice there are thousands of them, all identified with a particular work. The people and their communities identified themselves with their work. They assumed their names from their occupational work. They married amongst their own occupational community. Their social systems were organised around their work. Their occupation was the basis on which they built their lives, culture, communities and institutions. In so many ways, it was their primary means of interaction and participation in society.

The close links between caste, community and work are reflected in many [local] songs. What emerges from them is the way in which work and the creation of a product are closely interlinked with the relationships within a community. Each person's work links her to the ongoing life of the community. The following songs show how a woman links herself to the people in her village, and how all the needs are supplied within the village itself.

With a tenner coin I went to the carpenters' quarters
of my village
Make a house cart for Miya
A chariot for Bibi
A carriage for boy
Or return the tenner to me
I went to the potter quarters
Make a pot for Miya
A jar for Bibi
A lamp for boy
I went to the blacksmiths' quarters
A sword for Miya
A knife for bibi
A scissor for boy
I went to the tailors' quarters
A jacket for Miya
A dress for bibi
A shirt for boy
Or, return the tenner back to me

Another song on the same theme relates to production within the village and how each step in the production process is undertaken by a skilled person within the village. Interestingly, while the song brings out the economic interdependence between castes it also clearly reveals the hierarchies with the "merchant's wife" being the beneficiary of the work of the other women in the village.

A cotton plant in my backyard
Each pod weighs one-fourth a seer (pound)
Who will unshell the cotton pod
Labourer's woman will unshell the cottonpod.
Farmer's wife will spin the yarn.
Weaver's wife will weave the yarn.
Washerman's wife will wash the cloth
Tailor's wife will stitch the cloth
The wife of the merchant will wear the blouse and skirt.

Many of these concepts of work are being challenged, especially by women. In particular, feminists have pointed out the important role of house work and care work.

Folk songs, originally in Gujarati, collected by Ela Bhatt and translated by the authors.

Work and religion

Religion plays a major part in most people's lives in India , and work is closely related to religious beliefs. Most skilled workers have a patron god, Vishvakarma. Before starting their daily work, each worker does a small prayer around his tools. This practice has been extended to modern machinery - most machines in factories are worshipped at the start of the day. Women, in particular, are in close contact with the gods through their work. The gods accompany them while they work, and as women work they sing songs together feeling they are one with each other and with their gods. The following song was traditionally sung while grinding grain. Today, in most places, grain-grinding by hand has been replaced by machine, yet this song is still popular.

My ghanti grinds bajra
My ghanti has two matching stones

My ghanti has been my companion
My ghanti is my life support
Govindji sits in between the stones
Hanumanji sits on my hands

Shivji sits on the handle
Parshottam sits on my fine flour
Happy I am with support of my Gods
My bajra flour is blessed by Gods

Work with the community

Work is often done with other people and is seen as a group activity. Working together is a way of sharing and relating to others. Women bidi workers sit together and often talk while they roll their bidis. Filling water from the well tends to become a communal activity as does gathering of fodder or firewood. Cattle are a major source of work for most village women. They have to collect the cattle feed, clean out the cattle shed, milk

the cattle. They have to rise very early in the morning to tend the cattle and yet, to most women, looking after her cow is a duty of love, so attached is she to her cow. Often she worries more about her cow than about her children. When the cow delivers a calf, a great deal of work is required and yet it is a time of joy and other women in the community come to help. The older mother of that house sings:

Take up your pots and proceed to the pond
Soon my Shamli (buffalo) is to deliver a baby
Celebrate the joy, joy, joy
Put the big pot on one fire
Pour in the water to boil
Cook my Shamli's feed on the second fire
Serve her the feed with care and love
Take your brooms and clean up the space
Now prepare the bajro,
Add ghee and jaggery
And make big balls
She will need to eat for two
Oh, her time is up
Move away from her, all of you
She needs peace and space.
I now hear her coming, loud and clear,

Welcome, my friends,
Welcome my little Shamli
Get up, go and run, announce,
My Shamli has delivered another little Shamli

Work and development of the individual

Work occupies the better part of the day for most people. Partly through actually doing work and partly through learning from others, a worker develops his skills, and a person with more and superior skills is better respected in the community. When people value themselves and their work they feel a pride in themselves, and a dignity about what they do. Even work that is generally seen as unpleasant can be converted into a skill, something to be proud of. The making of a manure pit ( ukardo ) is sung about as an individual achievement:

Your ukardo
Not messy, not smelly
Not too wide nor too narrow
All admire your ukardo
Your ukardo has no weeds
Your cow dung is not wet
Your ukardo brings the highest bid
No one haggles to pay your price
Your ukardo will make you rich

Caste, religion and the family in today's system

It used to be believed that with the advent of western economic and political systems the caste system would weaken and the identification of people socially, politically and economically with their castes, would decrease. In fact, the opposite has happened. The democratic political system has encouraged greater caste solidarity. Castes which vote as a bloc have acquired political influence. The struggle for power in the political system

reflects the changing relations of castes, and a struggle to change the hierarchy between the castes.

Caste which developed on the basis of work is also reflected in the changing economic system. In a system where resources are scarce, it is caste solidarity which enables individuals to gain economic access. Castes with land have not only acquired more land but have made their way into other trades such as real estate. The growth of the IT economy is mainly with castes with a tradition of learning, while trade still remains firmly in the hands of the trading castes. The weaker castes are also in those types of work which are less paying and insecure, and the majority of agricultural labourers and casual workers come from what used to be the lowest castes.


Work and the individual

The existence of the individual, as an individual, and the work she does, are part of a larger meaning of life. Perhaps the one piece of philosophical writing that is most pervasive in the Indian (Hindu) ethos is the teachings from the Bhagvad Gita. It also has a clear exposition on work as a way to self-discovery and the meaning of life and gives a message of salvation through the principle of action, which is equivalent to work. This is because it is not possible for us to abstain from action. "Nature is ever at work and we are deluded if we fancy that its processes can be held up. Nor is cessation from work desirable because inertia is not freedom." (Radhakrishnan: 67). However, work or action is not merely for its own sake but is part of a larger purpose and we need to know the meaning of life before we engage in action.


How does this philosophy translate into an attitude towards work? Mainly it is through the ideal of unselfish work, or non-attachment. Good work is that which is done not only for oneself but for others. Of course, one has to do work in order to live and satisfy one's needs. But those needs should be kept to the minimum. Furthermore, non-attachment requires that one should not be attached to, desirous of, the fruits of one's work.

Work of an individual is related to the cosmos through 'yagna' or sacrifice. Whatever we consume is taken from the world and so something has to be put back into it. This can be seen in a number of ways. In relation to the natural, to the environment, the world of the inanimate, animals and plants, it is interpreted as the need to conserve and the need to replenish. In relation to social interaction it is seen as the need to give to the growth and development of others.

These concepts are at odds with the idea of economic man which dominates our economic system. Firstly, minimum needs is the opposite of the multiplication of wants and the growth of a consumer society. Secondly, unselfish work is the opposite of the economic man whose only aim is to pursue his selfish ends.

Different forms of work

The aim of this paper is to explore a different concept of work, without making a dichotomy between an "eastern" and "western" concept. There are alternative approaches in the European tradition, notably the Marxian approach, seeing work through the relations of production and distribution, and examining surplus rather than scarcities. There is also the institutional approach, which focuses on rules governing the labour relations and the relative bargaining power of individuals and social classes, and there is the anthropological approach, which emphasises agency. However, much of this diversity has been overtaken by neoclassical economics- the dominant sub-category of economic thinking and the concept of work described here refers to the way that work is used in neoclassical economics.

We would like to describe a small example of 'better work' developing in one of the most exploitative and harsh conditions, through the efforts of the poorest and yet skilled women.

Embroidery - a particular form of women's work

Many women all over the world do various types of stitching and embroidery, and have traditionally done so. Some of this embroidery has entered markets locally and women are now doing embroidery for traders; some has entered international markets and women are embroidering for garments they could never imagine. In many cases, embroidery is being replaced by the market - hand work by embroidery machines and embroidery itself by other types of designs.

Banaskantha is a dry desert district in Gujarat where water is scarce, land is unproductive, earnings are low and life is a hard struggle for survival. The landscape is bleak and grey, yet the people are colourful in embroidered garments. In this land, women work hard at many activities to survive, yet they have time and energy to embroider. As markets expanded, their embroidery began to link them with the rest of the world through the traders who came to buy their pieces and gave them orders. In more recent times they have, with the help of SEWA, formed their own associations and directly reached markets in the cities and international markets. Their skills have linked them to a larger world.

We talk to the women of the ahir caste who are mainly cattle breeders. The ahir women are very proud of their embroidery. Every young girl learns embroidering from the age of five. She learns to handle needle and thread on a small, smooth cloth given to her by her mother who teaches her the chain stitch first. They say, "We never wear a garment that is not embroidered. Our heart does not feel good wearing a plain colourless garment. We love to spread the dowry of our daughter in the chowk , invite relatives and friends to come and see and show off our skills. And when they carefully look and admire our hand work we feel satisfied deep in our heart."


Embroidery is done for traders too, but this work tends to be sporadic and exploitative. In times of drought and difficult conditions, traders from the cities come to these villages and buy old pieces of embroidery at throwaway prices. They also get orders and pay women by the piece-rate. However these piece rates are extremely low, much lower than what the women would get for digging earth. Embroidery is certainly work, whether it is done for the trader, for their own association, for their daughters' dowry or for themselves. Yet, the women do not see it as 'toil' or 'labour'. They have a close relationship with this work. ****

They like to embroider because to them it is creating beauty: "We are lovers of beauty and nature, we like to decorate and beautify everything with art and colour. We are poor and so cannot spend money on gold and jewellery, so the embroidery is our jewellery, see how the little mirrors shine like diamonds". Sometimes they feel compelled to create: "Needle and thread have to be in my hand as soon as I am sitting free. A pressure builds up in me when I see a new design anywhere, and I have to embroider it on a cloth, mine or anybody's. My husband knows how I feel and when he wants to punish me, he bans me from embroidering. At such times I tattoo on myself." And indeed, there were tiny, green, leaves and flowers all over her arms and legs - intricate and beautiful tattoos.

Embroidering is an activity by which the women refresh themselves, replenish their physical and emotional energies"¦.Embroidering by itself has its own significance. When alone, we talk with our soul inside. It is like yoga for me. I can see the past and future of the world. I can talk with the sky and sands of the desert. I do not like to be disturbed when I am embroidering. I am then not in a hurry to finish my work. It is a loved activity and a discipline too."

Embroidery, a traditional activity, has also begun earning money for them. How do they feel about it? "I feel happy that my skills can bring money into the house, I feel proud. But sometimes I feel exploited. I do not feel exploited when I am embroidering for our daughter. But now I also work for the trader, the market. The trader would cheat us but we did not know it earlier. When I realised it, I felt agitated, my heart burnt inside when I sold a good piece for a throwaway price to a trader. Those days I would not feel like eating or sleeping. But when we are embroidering for our own association, we go to the market and know what the real prices are then we do not feel exploited but happy that we are earning. Now with our organised collective strength there are hardly any middlemen. Now we design, we embroider, market to big cities here and abroad"¦ " *****

Embroidery is a support to them, in good times and bad. "When we are happy, we embroider. But in difficult times we embroider too. When we were hit by the earthquake, we were homeless, we did not have enough to eat, we were living under the open sky, with cold winter winds blowing. I embroidered a skirt, and I felt soothed and distracted from my worries. The skirt sold for Rs 10,000 and I got Rs 6,000, which I used to rebuild my house." Embroidery is a skill like any other. The women learn it from their mothers, their sisters, neighbours. However, when they enter markets they are exposed to many new designs and are keen to learn them too. They learn from each other and also from those professionals who are willing to teach them.


Better ways of working

In the embroidery of the women of Banaskantha we have described an example of work which combines elements of positive work and a better type of work in one of the harshest and poorest regions in the country. Our experience in SEWA has shown that better ways of working are indeed possible, and here we would like to try and define some of the elements which constitute better work, that is, work which gives self-respect and dignity to the worker, in which the worker and her work are integrated as part of a larger community, even of a larger cosmos, and work which, while fulfilling the needs of the individual, is in many ways 'unselfish' or selfless.

However, a better way of working can only come about when the structures of work and the relationships of work embody these values. The question that then arises is what should the structures of production and distribution be in order to have better work. This question cannot be approached in the abstract, in an idealised or distant past or future society, but must be placed in the context of the structures and relationships and the economy that exists today. The main features of such an economy would be to build structures that place the needs of the most vulnerable at the centre, that have more co-operative and decentralised methods of production and distribution.

The most vulnerable at the centre

One of the most disturbing aspects of today's economy is the extreme poverty and the large and growing inequalities that exist in society. Being poor in our society means meeting one's survival needs through work which is physically hard, demanding, often debilitating and usually underpaid. Often, even this kind of work is not available, and both men and women spend their days in a humiliating search for work. In the example described above, most families earn their living working on their own fields or as agricultural workers on other's fields. However, since the climate is dry and desert-like, most fields are quite unproductive and so they have to do a variety of difficult tasks, like breaking stone and mining salt in order to survive. Often even this work is not available and they have to uproot themselves and migrate in search of work. In such harsh circumstances embroidery is a work that soothes, brings colour and gives a sense of worth, and when embroidery can also be made into an activity which earns an income, it is 'better' work.

The first principle of a society which provides better work is to ensure that the poorest and the most vulnerable are provided with their basic needs. We are arguing not only for individual sympathy for the weak and disadvantaged, but for a social system which systematically focuses on the vulnerable and where the social structures, and more especially the economic structures and work structures, are designed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable groups. In India , a coherent concept of a 'good' society was developed during the era of the freedom struggle.

This concept of Swaraj or self-governance was seen not merely as a political system managed by and for Indians, but as the basis for a better society. "The word Swaraj is a sacred word, a Vedic word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint" (M K Gandhi: 3). And this concept would be the basis of a better society - If Swaraj was not meant to civilise us and to purify and stabilise our civilisation it would be worth nothing. The very essence of civilisation is that we give a paramount place to morality in all our affairs public and private" (ibid: 5). The success of the freedom movement was the involvement of the masses, and this was possible because Swaraj had the message not only of political freedom but more important that of economic freedom especially for the poorest. *****

"Working for economic equality means abolishing the eternal conflict between capital and labour. It means the levelling down of the few rich in whose hands is concentrated the bulk of the nation's wealth, on the one hand, and a levelling up of the semi-starved, naked millions, on the other. A non-violent system of government is clearly an impossibility as long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists - The contrast between the rich and the poor today is a painful sight. The poor villagers are exploited by the foreign government and also by their own countrymen - the city-dwellers. They produce the food and go hungry. They produce milk and their children have to go without it. It is disgraceful. Everyone must have a balanced diet, a decent house to live in, facilities for the education of one's children and adequate medical relief" (Harijan: 63-64).

In SEWA we have seen that working for others, and especially working for the most vulnerable, creates a force and energy that builds a movement. Most of the leaders of SEWA who are elected from among the members gain their leadership positions and acceptance by identifying the most vulnerable members and bringing them into SEWA. These most vulnerable women are also the ones who become loyal and active members and who later become the life-force of the movement.*****

Although the importance of focusing on poverty and the poor is emphasised in macro-economic policy it is generally not seen as the driving principle of economic life. In fact the poor are seen as marginal to economic life as a whole and to be taken care of through special schemes and safety nets. We are proposing that the economic structure be such that deprivation cannot exist, that is, every person must get his or her minimum needs. It requires a moral society to focus on the poorest. But it also requires structures which would identify these poorest and which would then have a system of social production where the minimum needs are satisfied. This leads us into our next criteria for a structure for better work - decentralised forms of production.

Economic decentralisation

Arguing for economic decentralisation is a difficult task. Although it is accepted today that political decentralisation is required for a vibrant and active democracy, centralisation of production, of skills and of ownership of resources is seen as leading to a more efficient economy. Here we would like to put forward some arguments to suggest the need for more decentralisation of production and distribution of goods and services as well as decentralisation of ownership of resources.

Our first argument for economic decentralisation follows from the last point of focusing on the most vulnerable. Identification of the most vulnerable is a major exercise, where a number of criteria have to be accepted and the people fitting those criteria to be identified. Reaching the poorest is a major administrative exercise if conducted centrally, a more efficient administrative system would be one where food, clothing and other minimum requirements are distributed locally. It would be even more efficient if much of the required needs are locally produced and only a certain amount imported. This does not argue that local areas are unconnected with mainstream markets, but merely that a certain minimum amount of produce needs to be grown and distributed locally. New technologies and inputs could boost this local production and linking with the market would encourage production of surplus as well as import of products which cannot be produced locally.

The second argument is related to justice and equality. Within most countries and also across nations, the distribution and ownership of wealth tends to be concentrated in certain areas, and generally the wealthier areas attract more resources and the poorer areas lose them. Economic decentralisation is one way (although not necessarily the only way) of distribution of resources.

The third argument is connected with 'holistic work'. We have seen that in many societies and especially among women, work is satisfying and creative if it is part of the individual, community and social life. Decentralised production and services for local use mean that part of the production can be for own use and part for exchange, as we saw in the case of the embroidery workers. Furthermore, this type of production is linked to local cultures and local designs and leads to far greater control of people over what they should produce, and how it is to be used. It has been found that where local communities have a greater control over these resources they preserve and regenerate the resource.

Local production and distribution especially strengthens the economic role of women. Much of women's work is non-monetary and meant for use within the family; a great deal of community work, especially those that involve maintaining social relationships, is usually done by women. Economic decentralisation would lead to two separate trends, both of which would be beneficial to women. First, it would strengthen local markets and

local skills and make the markets more accessible to women. Second, it would raise the value of non-monetary work, as work acquires a more holistic meaning and comes to include work done for maintenance of a larger society including all forms of community and service work.

There has been very little thought or action in recent years, on issues of economic decentralisation, while political decentralisation has proceeded fast. *****Economic decentralisation is often criticised on the grounds that it shuts local communities off from the skills, knowledge, resources and opportunities available outside the community, and makes them inward turning. What is being argued here is not a cutting off from larger opportunities but a redressal of the balance. Just as political decentralisation does not mean that national and state governments disappear when local government is empowered, so also local production can and should link into larger systems of production, local markets can and do link into national and international ones and local ownership of resources link into larger systems of ownership. SEWA Bank is a good example of this dynamic between the local and national. Poor women control their capital, but use the capital for employment generation which links into larger markets. At the same time SEWA Bank is linked into the larger banking system both through the financial and regulatory system of the Reserve Bank of India as well as financial dealings with other banking institutions.

Co-operative economic systems

Selfless or unselfish work as discussed in the specific Indian cultural context is an attitude towards work, rather than a particular type of work. People work for the physical and social maintenance of themselves, their families and their communities, and it is necessary that they do such work, if life is to go on. However, an 'unselfish attitude' requires firstly, that along with maintenance of individual selves, there should also be a constant awareness of maintenance of the cosmos as part of the work; and secondly, the self should not be 'attached' to the results of the work. This attitude towards work requires a constant awareness of others, of working for and serving a larger community; at the same time a minimising of one's own needs and desires.

Co-operative forms of work systems, where people work together to produce results which are beneficial for all, tend to be more conducive to unselfish work than forms which are individualistic and competitive. There are many such forms in existence today. They vary from small self-help groups being promoted in India , to traditional roscas, to mutual-help groups found in many African countries, to community grain banks and community social protection systems, to large formal cooperative societies.

Co-operative forms of work are also more likely to be adopted by the poor or by those who have less resources. Co-operation is one way of pooling resources and hence increasing control; it is also a way of increasing the bargaining power of those who are weak. It can be seen as the best form to meet the minimum needs of every individual.

Co-operative forms of work are also often questioned because the dominant mode today is of individuals interacting with the market and often competing. Is co-operation really feasible, and if it was why do we not see it working today? In fact, if one examines the reality, cooperative forms of production exist today far more than is realised. The European Union's social economy is estimated to consist of 900,000 enterprises and represents 10% of GDP and employment. Formal registered cooperatives too exist worldwide. Ranging from small-scale to multi-million-dollar businesses across the globe, co-operatives are estimated to employ more than 100 million women and men and have more than 800 million individual members. They operate mainly in agricultural marketing and supply, finance, wholesale and retailing, healthcare, housing and insurance, but are venturing into new fields such as information and communication technology, tourism and cultural industries. Co-operative enterprises, organisations and groups are abundant in the informal economy, especially in developing countries, although so far there has been no attempt to measure these.

Our experience in SEWA has shown that co-operative economic organisations are not only feasible for poor women but that they bring about better work in a number of different ways. First, organisation gives women who are the most vulnerable a new identity through their work, an identity where they are respected because of their work, and the contribution of their work is acknowledged by society and by their own families.

Second, cooperation allows them to build an enterprise and reach markets directly instead of being at the mercy of traders and others who exploit their lack of access to markets. Third, they are able to pool their resources - their capital, their knowledge and their skills. Fourth, they are able to avail of government schemes and programmes, which is difficult for them to do individually. Finally, their coming together into a viable organisation increases their voice and bargaining power in society and in the market.

A better way of working

Puriben Ahir is one of the women we interviewed, a woman who lives in the dry, desert village of Madhutra and has done many types of hard manual labour, from agricultural labour to breaking stones, to digging mud, to looking after cattle, but is also a skilled embroiderer. She says, " My whole life has been a search for getting enough to eat for my family, having enough water, sending my children to school and just being able to live a decent life. I have never been afraid to work, in fact for us work is life. But now I have a better way of working. My embroidery has become part of my earning, so I and

my family still look after our farm and go for agriculture labour when required, but we no longer have to work long hours at very hard labour. I feel proud whenever I work - it shows my skill, it makes me self-reliant, it increases my status and I know I am contributing to my family and to society. To me embroidery is happiness and work both combined. But we are able to do this only because we could come together, all of my sisters in my village, and we could form our own groups and reach the market. Earlier, my joy in the beautiful things I made would be destroyed when I had to sell them off to the trader at low prices. Now my skill has linked me to new people, new places and I feel happy to sell and give happiness to those who buy. It is my embroidery thread, which links me, my family and my village to people everywhere. It is my thread that brings investment and knowledge and skills into my village."

(Ela Bhatt and Renana Jhabvala are with SEWA, Ahmedabad. This article is excerpted from the Economic and Political Weekly, November 24, 2004 . The paper is an adapted version of a paper prepared for the ILO programme on Socio-Economic Security and to be eventually published in a book tentatively titled Labour and Work: Rethinking Informality.)


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InfoChange News & Features, September 2007