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  • SEWA's Unique Co-operatives: Gujarat Women's SEWA Cooperative Federation

  • SEWA's Co-operatives Sweep the Top Awards in Gujarat

  • The Journey of Shri Gujarat Mahila Lok Swasthya SEWA Cooperative Limited

  • SEWA Medical Shop for Women Workers

  • Vimo SEWA: First National Co-operative

  • The First Cooperative for the Women Vegetable Growers of Kheda

  • SEWA Kerala : A young union, a long struggle

No. 45 | Novermber - December 2012
A Very Happy New Year to All Friends!!
H2 Side SEWA's Unique Co-operatives: Gujarat Women's SEWA Cooperative Federation

The SEWA movement combines the joint action of trade unions and co-operatives. In 2012 which was celebrated as the International Co-operative Year, and which coincides with SEWA's 40th year, we were able to celebrate our success in increasing the bargaining power and economic self reliance of our members. As a trade union, SEWA has organized 1.4 million members in 125 different trades and has promoted 110 co-operatives. The majority of the co-operatives within Gujarat State have come together to establish the Gujarat State Women's SEWA Cooperative Federation. This perhaps is the biggest Women's Cooperative Federation in the country for workers in the informal economy.

Great diversity is seen in SEWA's cooperative societies: The largest within the SEWA family being SEWA Bank while the largest numbers are Dairy Cooperatives. The Health Workers Co-operative, Child Care Co-operative, Home Care Cooperative, and Insurance Cooperative are unique service providers while the others, Construction Workers Cooperatives, Artisans Cooperative, Paper Pickers Cooperative, Cleaners Cooperative, Vegetable Traders and Vendors Cooperative, and Land Cooperatives ensure steady employment and income.

Lalitaben, the President of the Federation says, "The trade union gives us voice and visibility, while the co-operatives help us make a living and provide services. The co-operatives without the trade union, lose their progressive edge, while the trade unions without co-operatives run out of steam. The cooperative society is an appropriate and useful structure to organize workers, some advantages:

  • The co-operative is a collective business which can make women self reliant.

  • The leadership qualities and management capacities of women workers increase through the cooperative. Writing accounts, reading the balance sheet, checking and managing the incoming and outgoing income are learned at the cooperative.

  • From time to time democratic elections are held in the cooperatives. Due to this process a new line of leaders are produced. At the same time it strengthens the pillars of democracy and the women workers get recognition, representation and visibility.

  • The Co-operative can provide services to its members. It becomes a single window this reduces the cost for the women as they don't have to move from one place to another to avail different services.

  • The habit of working together increases. Everyone's voice is heard. India represents workers from different cultures, caste, creed and language. In the cooperative all these workers work collectively for the society.

  • Cooperative society is a member based organization. In this the members themselves use, run and own the cooperatives. This structure helps to develop the feeling of belonging among members.

H2 Side SEWA's Co-operatives Sweep the Top Awards in Gujarat

SEWA's health Co-operative, Lok Swasthya SEWA Sahakari Mandali, was awarded "best performer" for the year 2011-12 by 'Gujarat State Co-operative Federation. Sangini--- SEWA's Child Care Co-operative and Video SEWA Co-operative, received the 2nd and 3rd award respectively.

H2 Side The Journey of Shri Gujarat Mahila Lok Swasthya SEWA Cooperative Limited

For SEWA members, most of who work as skilled or manual workers, their bodies are their only assets and good health means better incomes. Almost from its inception SEWA has promoted better health through education and better services, and developed a cadre of Arogya Saathis (health promoters). In May 1990 Shri Gujarat Mahila Lok Swasthya SEWA Cooperative Limited was registered, by 51 arogya sathis. This kind of health cooperative is the first of its kind in Gujarat and perhaps the first in India. The Lok Swasthya Co-operative continued and expanded its health education activities. It set up a school for mid-wives, TB (DOT) centres and a medicine shop for its members.

Dr Renukaben says: The illiterate yet experienced dias (mid-wives) of the village who have been involved in traditional ways of child birth are trained in a scientific fashion, which helps create the identity of the dais in their village and society. SEWA Midwives School has been started in four districts of Gujarat and in Churu District of Rajasthan. Trainings have been imparted to more than 1200 midwives on a regular basis. As a result of this training the midwives of the village started taking care of the women right from the pregnancy stage to child birth and continued it till the child was properly vaccinated, which has brought down maternal and child mortality.
H2 Side SEWA Medical Shop for Women Workers

In 1989 through the Lok Swasthya Cooperative a medical shop was started on a small scale. Through this shop good quality generic medicines are sold which sharply reduces medical costs of the SEWA members.

Impressed by this small effort the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation invited and donated Rs 5 lakh to SEWA to start a medical shop in the grounds of L.G. Hospital. The pharmaceutical market is a male dominated market and the stockists were surprised and hesitant to deliver the medicines to the women. This shop is the first of its kind in Ahmedabad which is operated 24x7 by women only. It surprised many men who came to collect orders since they had to deal with only women at the counters. As time passed and experience grew support from the hospital as well the market increased.

As the prices in this shop were well below the market level, it created unrest in the retail and wholesale markets. Other medical shops tried to mislead the customers. At the same time some anti social elements tried to play havoc by using physical and verbal abuse to the women working in the night shift.

Since the business of the retailers was affected they complained to the Ahmedabad Chemist Association. The supply of medicines to the SEWA medical shop was stopped. However, we found new supplies and SEWA's medical shop remained open throughout the year. In the year 1994 Municipal Corporation invited SEWA to open a medical shop in Shardaben Hospital in Saraspur area of Ahmedabad. At night the goons would get drunk and harass the women. Some people would come late in the night and ask for intoxicating drugs and injections. On refusal to give them the same they would end up fighting with the women. SEWA women would remain adamant and refuse to give away drugs.

In 1998 the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation refused to renew the LG Hospital contract for the medical shop and send a notice to vacate as politically connected people started eying this as a profitable business venture. Eventually SEWA had to wind up its medical shop in LG hospital. And similarly in 2002 we had to close down the shop in Shardaben hospital.

SEWA's Medical Shop is encouraging the Generic Rational Drug Therapy and is persistently working towards it. The main purpose of the shop is to reduce the unnecessary medical expenditure of the patients and to provide medicines at concessional rates. To encourage this effort, SEWA members constantly engages in talks with the doctors of the hospital persuading them to prescribe generic medicines. However, SEWA often faces disappointment due to the strong ties between the medical companies and the doctors. The support of the doctors is highly essential in providing generic medicines.

Although, we were not allowed to open shops inside the hospital, we did not give up and rented a store right outside the hospitals and opened our shops there. Both shops were highly successful. However, in 2008 due to the intense pressure from the nearby medical shops the Ahmedabad Medical Association boycotted SEWA's Medical Shop. Apart from being boycotted the supplier to SEWA's medical shop was asked to pay a fine. The shop owners in the neighborhood used to pick up a fight with the salesmen of the supplier. In order to sustain the shop the medicines were directly send to the homes of SEWA members. This struggle too finally was resolved on the intervention of the Superintendent of Hospitals.

SEWA works at the policy level too and has campaigned for Universal Health Care and free medicines. This policy has been accepted by the Government and free medicines are now given at Government and Municipal hospitals in Ahmedabad. This is highly beneficial for our members but has affected the sales of the Lok Swasthya shops!

H2 Side Vimo SEWA: First National Co-operative

SEWA's first national cooperative- The National Insurance VimoSEWA Cooperative Limited comprises of women workers from Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. It provides life insurance, health insurance and accident insurance to its members.

Board member and sewing worker Ashaben Ajmeri says, "At first, we did not even have the money to pay the premium. Then Vimo SEWA provided us saving boxes in our homes and we were able to save a rupee a day and pay our premium. It is our security in times of trouble".

Madhuben from Ahmedabad says, "Insurance is an armor (Kavach). Just as Karna (one of the central characters in the epic Mahabharata) had the protection of his body armor similarly women today have insurance as their armor. Insurance helps us in the struggle against calamities".

Samimbanu a bidi worker from Rakhial, Ahmedabad says: "I have taken medical insurance. Recently my child was very ill and I could get her admitted in the hospital and treated properly. Her good health is due to Vimo SEWA."

Ashaben from Bikaner says, "Women here are engaged in the work of rolling papads, stitching clothes and other homebased work. Whenever they fall ill they lose their earnings and go into debt. Now thanks to insurance we are protected during our illnesses."

Miraiben, the Chair of Vimo SEWA, says, "We would like Vimo SEWA to become a full-fledged insurance provider, now we have to depend on other insurance companies as the initial capital required is very high. However, there are 43 crore workers in India, out of which 20 crore are women workers. We need to reach them all".

H2 Side The First Cooperative for the Women Vegetable Growers of Kheda

The Gujarat State Mahila Cooperative Federation obtained a shop (Shop No.40) in the main vegetable wholesale market of Jamalpur, Ahmedabad. Maniben, a vegetable grower of Kheda district, regularly visited Shop No. 40 of SEWA to sell her produce. One day she asked, 'Why was there no cooperative formed for vegetable growers? She said that many vegetable growers were working with her and they could all get together. Her initiative helped create the Vegetable Growers Cooperative. 500 people have been associated with the Shop, and on 31st December, 2011 Shree Kheda Taluka Mahila Fruit and Vegetable Producers Cooperative Limited was registered, with Maniben as its president, the first of its kind for vegetable growers, where women have started collective farming.

H2 Side SEWA Kerala : A young union, a long struggle

SEWA Kerala, was registered as a trade union only in 2009 although activities commenced 20 years before. Kerala is a state where the majority of workers belong to trade unions both in the organised and unorganised sectors, hence it was difficult for SEWA to get a registration for a union of only women workers, but SEWA is the only trade union which address the issues that women members face, and it is unique as it combines struggle and demands with developmental activities. For instance, the bamboo workers did not have access to raw material, so SEWA organised workers to demand for a government bamboo depot and later to also get support from the Handicrafts Corporation to get skill training to develop better products. The fish vendors face several problems in the market like being abused by men merchants, high market taxes etc. and these issues are taken up by SEWA union.

In the mid 1980s itself, SEWA also began to work for the rights of domestic workers. These workers were treated very badly as they worked in private homes. SEWA decided that if such a service was more professionalised, then the workers would get more respect and could also get their rights as workers. Hence SEWA began to train these workers in specific skills - like care for the sick, care for children, cooking and cleaning and then created a service maintaining norms for the engagement of workers and in this way, began to change the entire climate of the domestic workers. In 2004, SEWA prepared a draft Bill for domestic workers and submitted it to the Government of Kerala. Several organisations of domestic workers grew all over the world and by 2008, the attention of the whole world was turned to the plight of domestic workers worldwide and the ILO in 2010 began a discussion on creating standards for domestic workers, where SEWA was an important participant, which finally became a Convention in 2011. This Convention 189 is a great achievement in the history of the domestic workers and we have to see how this can be taken ahead. SEWA was also a member of the Task Force on domestic workers that was created by the Ministry for Labour and Employment that created a draft National Policy for Domestic Workers in 2011.

In 2011, because of the pressure from the domestic workers, the government of Kerala created a welfare board for domestic workers. Right now the benefits of the board are not very significant, but this gives the workers an identity as a worker and the fact that they register in a board makes them visible to the government which in the future will also be forced to budget for the needs of these workers. The domestic workers have also been recognised for membership for health insurance in the RSBY. On some occasions they have also had access to rice rations at Rs. 2 a KG.

The reed workers registered with the Handicrafts Development Corporation. This Corporation has a scheme for these workers which are based on the self help group concept. 100 women make up a larger unit. The workers get their ID cards as workers and with that can also avail of benefits from the Corporation, like educational grants for their children, loans, medical benefits etc. The Corporation also provides money for skill training and finally also a craft centre for the workers. SEWA members have therefore had a series of skill trainings and have also acquired the land for their craft centre. Hopefully this will be built in the coming two years.

SEWA also has a Rural Centre which is managed by a group of women members. In addition to a meeting hall and work rooms where paper products and soap are made there is a large garden in which there are coconut palms and space to grow vegetables. The group at the centre have to be able to earn their own wages and maintenance of the centre.

Over the last three years, SEWA Kerala has organised the street vendors. Unfortunately the majority of vendors in the state are men but since there is a National Policy for Vendors, SEWA managed to work with vendor organisations of all political affiliations and together to develop a draft policy for street vendors in Kerala. This Policy was accepted by the government in April 2011. Now SEWA is helping the Corporation to put the policy in place. It has developed a project proposal to the Kudumbashree - that is the nodal agency for the Street Vendors - in order to collect data as well as to develop digitised maps of the street vending zones etc. so that the policy can be well implemented. This work will commence in November this year and hopefully it will bear some fruit for the vendors.

SEWA Kerala is the smallest of the SEWA in the country. At present there are only 5000 members. But despite this small size, we are happy to say that SEWA in Kerala has gained acceptance as a union of women workers in the trade union front. In these last two years SEWA succeeded to stimulate the creation of a common platform of all the political party and other unions where labour issues can be jointly discussed. Being a member of the ITUC, we first got the ITUC partners together- which are the Congress and the HMS. The AITUC - being very large, has been pleased to take leadership in this platform but you can be sure that all the work and input for the sessions is done by SEWA, which has been included in the Joint Action Platform of the trade unions and in the last demonstrations and meeting, the only women on the dias are SEWA representatives. We are also painfully learning how the men continue to hog the limelight and how the seats on the dias are never enough as all levels of male leaders want to be on the dias. We do not know how and when this will change and when the leadership will give time to seriously discuss the issues of the women workers. It is a hard and long struggle but we are on the way.

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