More action is needed to support the world’s self-employed workers

More action is needed to support the world's self-employed workers

Jyoti Macwan is a leading women’s activist and the general secretary of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India.

(DGB/Simone M. Neumann)

The latest meeting of G20 labour ministers vowed further efforts to promote inclusive growth and social dialogue, reduce income inequalities and improve sustainability. But their final statement made no specific mention of the self-employed, an important work force in many countries.

Ahead of the 18-19 May meeting in Germany, a poll conducted in most of the G20 nations and commissioned by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), found that 73 per cent of people are worried about losing their jobs and 80 per cent say the minimum wage is not enough to live on.

The labour ministers, representing about 85 per cent of the world’s GDP and two-thirds of the global population, did call in an annex for “improving the quality of women’s earnings” and “increasing women’s labour market security.”

Jyoti Macwan, a leading women’s activist who is also the general secretary of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, and the ITUC are calling for further action. The following is an Equal Times interview with Macwan.

What must the G20 do now to secure collective bargaining, a minimum living wage, social protection and rights in supply chains? What progress is the German presidency of the G20 [1 December 2016 until 30 November 2017] making?

The G20 can help in mapping value and supply chains across countries, especially in agriculture, the textile and garment sectors and construction. It can also assist in calculating the minimum living wage in developing and underdeveloped countries, and pressing for the ratification of the core-level conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Many developing and underdeveloped countries have not yet ratified these core-level conventions and recommendations.

The German government and G20 governments together, in addressing the needs of workers and community in Africa as well as India and other developing regions, should ensure that economic and social policies deliver greater equality and formalise the informal economy.

The foundation for this is a minimum living wage, access to food security, access to social security, and more importantly, workers’ rights focusing on women workers, throughout the global supply chain reaching to the home-based workers.

What role must governments and international institutions play to secure rights and benefits for the self-employed?

They should aim for the ratification of ILO conventions and recommendations relating to home-based work, domestic workers, as well as the formalisation of the informal, as with the 12-by-12 campaign. Regional meetings and country-level meetings with governments should be held for this.

Governments should also work for the recognition of informal economy workers, collect statistics of these workers, ensure social security coverage and enact laws and policies according to the characteristics of the informal sector.

What role can NGOs and trade unions play?

NGOs and trade unions have a large role to play in the changing economics. Along with organising and demonstrating for their rights, trade unions also need to take a holistic development approach for the betterment of workers: for example, building their cooperatives and economic institutions, and imparting skills according to the current market trends. The focus of trade unions now needs to broaden to encompass job security, income security, food security and social security for workers, along with fighting for their rights.

How can the self-employed organise when they are not full employees?

SEWA has organised many women workers in different factories like glass, plastics, tobacco processing, diamonds, textiles and ready-made garment units, as well as companies.

The approach taken by SEWA saw organisers standing on the approach road to the factory/company or at the gates to contact the women workers. They would procure the addresses of female workers and conduct night meetings or sometimes in the recess hours.

To organise the construction workers, SEWA contacted them and conducted meetings at the construction crossroads where the workers stand every morning in search of work. Meetings were also held at night when the workers return from work.

It is difficult to organise home-based workers, so SEWA organisers and leaders stand near the shops where female workers come to take the raw materials and deliver the finished goods.

How can unions put pressure on companies to allow the self-employed to organise?

With time, SEWA built up good relationships with the employers of beedi industries, diamond-cutting, incense stick manufacturers and construction firms. This was through frequently meeting them and understanding their issues.

SEWA solved most of the issues through lobbying and took to demonstrations as the ultimate weapon. Negotiations, better understanding of each other issues and solutions through mutual consent helped SEWA earn the trust and faith of the employers and contractors. It is a long process, however, and takes eight to nine months to build up the relationship. Moreover, SEWA’s strong values and values-based organising helps in building the relationship.

What role can consumers play in adding to this pressure – both locally and internationally – to allow the self-employed to organise?

For waste recyclers, SEWA launched a letter-writing campaign and asked residents to write to the municipality. Actually, the work of door-to-door waste collection was given to private companies, so 466 waste recyclers lost their livelihoods. SEWA initiated a letter campaign where the individual waste recyclers convinced residents to write to the municipal commissioner and to the chairman of the municipal standing committee [saying] that the door-to-door waste collection done by traditional women waste recyclers is very good and their work should be continued.

We also carried out a survey of consumers when street vendors were evicted on a large scale. Consumers were asked whether they would prefer to have fruit and vegetables in their vicinity. Most of the residents affirmed that they wanted vendors. The findings of the survey were shown to the municipal corporation and the eviction of the street vendors was stopped.

What is the Women’s Livelihood Fund and how can it help female workers?

The Women’s Livelihood Fund will help women workers build up their own business or economic institutions like cooperatives and self-help groups, which in turn will help them to organise better, with skill-building, a decent livelihood, work security and income security, and make them autonomous and self-reliant. It will serve as working capital to improve their own enterprises.

And finally, how can a minimum living wage be secured for the world’s workers when there is so often a race to the bottom in the global economy?

SEWA’s experience shows that the tripartite mechanism – between the workers’ representatives of the informal economy, employers/contractors’ representatives belonging to the informal economy and government representatives – is the best way to ensure minimum wages for the workers. Secondly, SEWA has always used minimum wages as a leverage to demand a wage increase from the employer, and that has been beneficial to workers.