Little protection for home-based women workers

     This document has been made available in electronic
     format by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA
                         February 1996

                by IPS correspondent Mahesh Uniyal

          Little Protection for Home-based Women Workers

New Delhi, May 30 (IPS) - Long ignored by trade unions,
India's  majority unorganised work force has finally set up
its own  national organisation to lobby decision makers for a
fair deal.

But trade unions are not pleased and say yet another  national
labour outfit will not solve problems facing workers in  the
informal sector.

Some two dozen groups representing tens of millions of 
construction, fish, forest, farm, mine and home-based women 
workers set up the first national forum of unorganised workers

Monday at a landmark meet in the southern city of Bangalore.

The National Centre for Labour (NCL) is the result of more 
than two years of deliberation by various representative
bodies  of informal workers. 

Trade unions, associations, cooperatives, federations and 
confederations of informal labour are eligible for membership.

It comprises a top decision-making general council elected by 
members that will reflect NCL membership in terms of gender, 
caste and community.

Electors will have the right to recall and replace a council 
member. The council will be aided by a secretariat and
executive  committee.

"This national centre shall provide a common forum and 
platform for all of us who are trying to explore how millions
of  our fellow workers and their families can change this 
exploitative and inhuman society," says a resolution issued by
the member organisations.

It is estimated that nine out of every 10 of India's more than
317 million workers are in the informal sector where there is 
little or no protection for jobs and wages and working
conditions  are unregulated.

A large proportion of them are women and children, who are 
often paid less than their male and adult colleagues, whether 
working at urban construction sites or in home-based workshops
run by sub-contractors for large manufacturers.

"In our search for survival we have to look beyond the 
primary issue of wages that occupies most organised sector 
unions. We have to struggle for the security of employment 
itself, for limiting the hours of work, for the provision of 
minimum facilities such as creches and drinking water, for
basic  shelter and sanitation...," Adds the resolution.

The emotive statement reflects the harsh reality of India's 
informal workforce, say labour activists.  Unlike formal
sector  workers who have regular salaried jobs in registered
factories  and service organisations, unorganised labour is
either self- employed or hired as casual hands in farm and
non-farm  activities.

Worse, these are mostly people who have been deprived of their
traditional livelihood -- peasants and forest dwellers evicted
from ancestral homes by development projects and traditional 
artisans phased out by competition from modern industry.
Very few informal workers are unionised, mainly because of the
difficulties of organising employees who rarely work in a 
centralised location. Moreover, union registration norms make 
it difficult for unorganised workers to set up their own

National trade unions, however, claim that they are doing
their  bit for informal workers. A million of the 2.5 million
members of  the left-aligned Centre of Indian Trade Unions
(CITU) are from  the informal sector, says Tapan Sen of CITU.

"We'd like a joint platform with them (NCL)," he says, but 
adds that informal worker representatives have been unduly 
critical of the national trade unions.

He points out how all central labour unions have lobbied for 
years for a legislation for construction workers who comprise
a large chunk of informal workers.

But S.N. Rao of the Indian National Trade Union Congress 
(INTUC) affiliated to the ruling congress party says, "the
major trade unions had been ignoring unorganised workers till

However, he is quick to add, "we have our own federations of 
unorganised workers." He sees the setting up of the NCL as 
another instance of the fragmentation of the country's trade 
union movement.