Informal sector workers band together (IPS, August 1995)

     This document has been made available in electronic format
          by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA
                         August 1995

            Informal sector workers band together
               by IPS correspondent Mahesh Uniyal

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

   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 union.

  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 now''.

   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.