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Sujata Gothoskar: Fighting for the invisible underclass

By Sheba Tejani

93% of India's total workforce, which contributes 63% of the GDP, is employed in the informal sector. 96% of all women employed in the economy work in the informal sector, at low wages, long hours of work and no social security benefits. Sujata Gothoskar has spent decades working for the rights of women in the unorganised sector

It was the early-'70s. Sujata Gothoskar was in the first year of college and people were feeling restless about what was going on in the country and outside. It was the time of the black movement, the Vietnam war and the drought in Maharashtra, and there was a lot of activism around these issues. Sujata and a group of students put up a poster exhibition at Mumbai's Elphinstone College, raising questions about whether the drought in the state was natural or man-made. Theirs was a humanitarian intervention rather than political, but the authorities pulled them up for taking an anti-government stand. That, Sujata says, was the first time she realised that there was nothing that was not political. Yet, there was a feeling that revolution was around the corner and that things would never be the same again. "It was an exhilarating feeling," she says.

Since those early years Sujata Gothoskar has taken on a myriad social struggles and made them her own in a relentless effort to heed the injustice she sees around her. She has worked as a labour activist with trade unions, she has researched and organised around issues of informal work, and she has been associated with the women's movement.

Working for the Bombay Slum Dwellers United Front (BSDUF) in the 1970s, Sujata was the only woman employee in a group of mostly dalit men. She tried to form women's groups in the slum community to talk not only about evictions -- the main issue worked on by the Front -- but also about other problems the women faced. For instance, a number of rapes had taken place in the slums when women had gone to use the toilets that were located some distance away. When women activists politicised the issue the male leadership tried to explain it away by saying that locating the toilets close by would prevent the rapes from happening again. Sujata says: "We were not ready to accept that the lack of facilities was the reason for the rapes. The men were the reason why they had occurred."

It was in those early years that she encountered Annette, a Front activist from Wadala. Other Front workers shunned Annette because she was a bootlegger by profession, a fact that Sujata found out only later. She remembers confronting Annette in an "uppity way" about why she did work that was harmful to others. Describing the look of betrayal on Annette's face Sujata says: "She asked me: `Do you think I like what I do? All in my own family are destroyed because of liquor. I can't sleep at night for hours thinking about what I do. Give me one way to survive and I will give this up'." Annette told her that she had tried nursing, prostitution and working in factories but nowhere had she found as much dignity as she did in this profession. She had been molested a number of times in the factory but here at least she was the madam of her own house and she had the sanctity of her own body. That was when Sujata realised that the situation was much more complex than she had previously imagined. There were no easy answers.

Sujata feels that her politics now "lie at the confluence of leftism and feminism" and that her work addresses the "underclass of workers". Coming from an early left background she looked upon the working class as the vanguard of any social movement, but also began to understand the caste and class oppression within.

In the 1980s, Sujata worked with the Union Research Group (URG) in Mumbai which provided trade unions in Pune, Thane and Mumbai with information about existing wage levels, benefits and allowances in order to strengthen their bargaining position. There were few women in leadership positions in unions then, but Sujata continued supporting and raising women workers' demands. The '80s, in particular, were a radical time for unions and Sujata cites the case of a Kamani tube factory that was taken over by workers after its owners abandoned it. Furious debates ensued over the possibility of worker take-over of factories that were closing down, and Sujata, along with other colleagues at the Worker's Solidarity Centre, volunteered to work out alternatives by which this could be done, including transforming industrial units into co-operatives. However, most of these efforts proved unsuccessful; many companies employed the strategy of shifting location or outsourcing work to combat worker collectivity.

Now, more than ever, there is an increasing 'casualisation' of the workforce and a consequent increase of population in the informal, unprotected sector. "A majority of women are in the informal sector. These women form the backbone of the economy and most of our development comes from this section, yet it gets very little. Almost all institutions - the family, state and private property -- are poised against the informal sector. There is no concept that informal workers have a right to a decent living. This is disturbing and I feel that anyone who works must have this right."

Ninety-three per cent of the total workforce, which contributes 63% of the GDP, is employed in the informal sector. Ninety-six per cent of all women employed in the economy work in the informal sector. Their earnings are extremely low, hours of work long, and employment and social security benefits, such as paid leave, medical insurance and pension, practically nil.

Although she still lives in Mumbai, Sujata now works with the Committee for Asian Women (CAW), a Bangkok-based organisation doing research and advocacy work around women workers' issues. She was responsible for getting organisations, unions and women's groups together on the issue of 'informalisation' at an Asia-level meet in November 2001. This led to the recognition of informal workers' rights at the International Labour Conference (ILC) in June 2002, for the first time in its history. In the year 2002, Sujata authored a 20-country study for CAW on the situation of women workers in the informal economy in Asia, and on the strategies and organising attempts made in these countries.

"South Asia is worse off than East Asia and Southeast Asia. While we have always had a very large informal sector, places like Japan, Korea and Taiwan did not have a visible informal sector until the crisis began. In India, the informal sector is marginalised, it is invisible in policy but because of its sheer number this sector is visible. In Japan the mainstream consists of male formal sector workers, so although the informal sector is not very large it has a greater invisibility."

Sujata is closely involved with the women's movement, and worked with the Wakola Women's Centre in Mumbai to provide crisis-intervention services to women facing violence. "What I think and what I live has a lot to do with my involvement with the women's movement," she says. Ironically, even though Sujata has spent many years of her life struggling for workers' rights she herself has no social security or employment benefits to support her once she stops working.

Sujata insists that newer forms of organising workers need to be experimented with. "It is difficult to sustain organisations unless there is some component that sustains women personally as well. Otherwise, the vulnerability and dependence on that very income that is likely to be threatened by one's actions makes women less likely to want to organise, especially in trade unions." One of the biggest challenges in terms of organising the informal sector today, she feels, is the monopolisation of the market by multinational corporations (MNCs). The thrust should be on creating new markets and offering new products. The degradation and privatisation of natural resources also constitute a major threat to informal workers. New skill formation will be critical, but how is this to be done in an already saturated skills arena? Always thinking about what new avenues can be explored for activism, Sujata is not one to give up hope. She speaks laughingly of acquiring a new skill herself and doing "something different in the coming years". Immediately though she plans to do volunteer work for a year after her contract with CAW expires.

(Sheba Tejani has studied economics and international relations. She has worked with the Asia Society, New York, and with the community-based organisation MASUM in Pune, India)

InfoChange News & Features, May 2003