The effects of this COVID-19 pandemic have been felt greatly in India. Those who are most affected are the most vulnerable workers in the informal economy, which constitute 90 per cent of India’s total workforce.
Even in non-crisis times, these workers have limited access to social protection, given the fact that a large segment of these workers are self-employed-small and marginal farmers, street vendors, and small producers.
Women in the informal economy are the poorest and most vulnerable of workers. In fact, there is an overlap between informality, gender and poverty, with women more likely to be engaged in informal work arrangements, undertaking work that is poorly paid and often hazardous and that men will not do.
Female ownership for local solutions
When women are involved directly in extending social protection, they can quickly suggest what works and what does not for them and their families. One of the best ways, we have found, to convince policy-makers and legislators to frame appropriate programs, laws and policies, is to show what works at the grassroots level and what it will cost. Legislators are often surprised to learn that there are several low cost or no cost mechanisms and that the total burden on the exchequer is often much less than imagined, especially when the workers themselves implement the laws and policies through programs and mechanisms such as through their own cooperatives.
The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has been working with informal women workers by organising them into their own union and cooperatives. Elaben Bhatt began organising women workers as early as 1972. Today, the union has 1.8 million members across 18 states in the country. Since 1992, the SEWA Cooperative Federation has promoted women-owned cooperatives, enabling close to 300,000 informal women workers in accessing decent work.
Now, at a time of unprecedented crisis, women cooperatives help to extended social protection measures when most needed by their members and their households. Key areas of action include:
Due to the nature of their work, many informal workers are not equipped to take required precautions such as social distancing and hand washing, nor can they afford masks and sanitizers. Also, owing to their living conditions – crowded houses, community toilets – they are highly exposed to the risk of contracting the virus. Moreover, the foreseen livelihood loss can add to mental and psychological stress.
In response to an increasing price of hand sanitizers, our health cooperative – Lok Swasthya Mandali (LSM) – began producing low-cost hand sanitizers. These sanitizers are distributed to vulnerable households. Additionally, LSM’s medicine shops are providing subsidized generic medicines. A cadre of health workers was trained to provide information on preventive health care like handwashing, as well as specific aspects related to COVID-19 Do’s and Don’ts, such as hygienic practices in relation to waste disposal etc. as well as basics of psycho-social care and dealing with stigma. These health workers are also working with local authorities to carry out rapid referrals in grassroots communities.
Informal workers lack access to affordable child care facilities, which often is one of the factors that hinder women’s participation in the labour market. Our child care cooperative –SEWA Sangini – has been running several centres across Ahmedabad city, tending children of informal workers. Due to social distancing measures, child care centres have had to be temporarily closed. This has added to the care work being done by women within households, which in itself has seen a manifold increase due to the lockdown. To ease this burden, SEWA Sangini continued to cook and distribute hot, freshly cooked meals for the children and their families. This has served a dual purpose: paid work for the caregivers and relief from unpaid care work.
Informal workers are largely unprotected by the labour policies and schemes, which come with salaried employment for workers in the formal sector. SEWA’s insurance cooperative – VimoSEWA – has been filling the gap by extending an integrated insurance program that aims to provide social protection for members to cover their life cycle needs and the various risks they face in their lives. In response to COVID-19, VimoSEWA launched a comprehensive and integrated insurance package, which provides financial help and compensates wage-loss in case a member gets infected with the virus.
Moving forward from COVID-19: our recommendations
While SEWA Federation’s cooperatives have been quick to respond, they are still vulnerable to income losses. In a few weeks, the cooperatives will become unviable themselves, particularly those that do not fall under essential services, like domestic work or cleaning. There is a need for wider action, through widening welfare schemes and through public-private partnerships.
Salonie Muralidhara is a Senior Coordinator at SEWA Federation, working in research and advocacy. In the past, she has worked with the International Labour Organisation, researching women’s labour force participation and social protection in the Global South.
Nikita Chettri is a Junior Analyst at SEWA Federation, working in research and communications. She is a recent graduate, and in the past has interned with organisations in Kenya and Canada where her contribution pertained to research and monitoring framework development.
The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.
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