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Supporting informal workers in India during Covid-19

India Programme / Partner story

Photo provided by SEWA

In India, women account for 32 per cent of the informal workforce. They work in agriculture, forestry, construction, and mining, and also as domestic workers and street vendors. Often their work is seasonal, and low wages, wage discrimination and unsafe working conditions are widespread. Based in Jharkhand in the east of India, SEWA Bharat supports women informal workers to claim labour rights and social protection. The largest women workers’ union in the country, SEWA Bharat empowers informal workers to collectively demand full employment, benefits, and entitlements.

SEWA Bharat also trains women to become leaders or “Agyevans” as they are known in Hindi, and provides a platform for workers to share their concerns. “Through the trade group we are able to discuss our trade-related issues without any confusion,” says Pinki Minj, a domestic worker and Agyevan. “Every domestic worker faces the same issues.” Through these platforms it also shares information on entitlements, and referral services for training workshops, research institutes that share knowledge, credit facilities, and other organisations.

SEWA Bharat has built a strong membership of 6,181 women working informally in Jharkhand as domestic workers, agricultural workers, construction workers, and street vendors. There are 87 locally elected female Agyevans energetically taking on leadership roles to help organise the women, meet with local government officials, and mobilise trade-specific support. As a first step to being officially recognised as workers, SEWA Bharat has enabled 639 domestic workers, 1,200 construction workers, 176 street vendors and 877 from other trades to get worker ID cards. This is important as registration entitles the workers and their families to a lump sum in case of accidents or death.

In addition, three trade committees for women employed in informal domestic work, construction and street vending have been provided communal spaces to discuss trade-specific issues. 1,000 women agricultural workers from remote locations have come together to form 50 farmer’s clubs, through which they have access to improved techniques on sustainable farming through government training centres. One significant achievement has been the revival of millet production, which despite its high nutrient value and low input costs, had previously been aggressively replaced with market-driven cereals. It is hoped that reintroducing grains like millet into the farming system in tribal areas of Jharkhand will create a sustainable way to achieve food and nutritional security for many people across the state.

When the government announced a sudden lockdown in March 2020 as an emergency response to the Covid-19 situation, the Agyevans were a crucial link between SEWA Bharat and its members. They helped by passing on information relating to the lockdown to women in the villages, including preventative measures. They also identified vulnerable families and helped them access the support available. Women who had attended the SEWA Bharat training to help empower domestic workers, demanded that mobile food distribution be regularised in their communities. As a result, 100 households benefitted. “I learned about tactics to claim rights and entitlements from the SEWA Bharat community training,” said domestic worker Rita Devi.

In addition, the Agevans facilitated and encouraged women in the communities to help each other during the crisis, by collectively purchasing dry rations for needy households within the region, sewing 5,000 masks for SEWA members and their families, and supporting local groups to cook and serve food to workers. Agyevan leaders tracked migrant workers to help them as they returned home, conducted door-to-door health checks for Covid-19 symptoms, and referred the ill to local hospitals to reduce the spread of Covid-19. They also worked closely with SEWA Bharat and the community to discuss how migrants could return to work safely. 

Oak supports the work of SEWA Bharat through our India Programme, which works to support equitable opportunities for all, because everyone should have a fair chance at creating a life for themselves. Read more about the programme strategy here. SEWA Bharat works at grassroots levels in India to understand the needs of communities and applications of basic income to transform lives. Check out its website to find out more.