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India: Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA)

India: Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA)

by IDWFED published Sep 17, 2014 06:17 PM
SEWA is a trade union registered in 1972. It is an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers. These are women who earn a living through their own labour or small businesses.
Street Address SEWA Reception Centre, Opp. Victoria Garden, Bhadra, Ahmedabad - 380 001. India.
Phone Number
Fax Number 91 - 79 - 25506446
Email [email protected]
Type Trade Union
Number of Male Members
Number of Female Members
Members Pay Fees
Maintains Register of Fees Paid
Year Established 1972


In this newly published report, SEWA - the Self Employed Women's Association, shared their stories in organizing domestic workers and advocating for their rights : 

SEWA is a trade union registered in 1972. It is an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers. These are women who earn a living through their own labour or small businesses. They do not obtain regular salaried employment with welfare benefits like workers in the organised sector. They are the unprotected labour force of our country. Constituting 93% of the labour force, these are workers of the unorganised sector. Of the female labour force in India, more than 94% are in the unorganised sector. However their work is not counted and hence remains invisible.

SEWA’s main goals are to organise women workers for full employment. Full employment means employment whereby workers obtain work security, income security, food security and social security (at least health care, child care and shelter). SEWA organises women to ensure that every family obtains full employment. By self-reliance we mean that women should be autonomous and self-reliant, individually and collectively, both economically and in terms of their decision-making ability.

At SEWA we organise workers to achieve their goals of full employment and self reliance through the strategy of struggle and development. The struggle is against the many constraints and limitations imposed on them by society and the economy, while development activities strengthen women’s bargaining power and offer them new alternatives. Practically, the strategy is carried out through the joint action of union and cooperatives. Gandhian thinking is the guiding force for SEWA’s poor, self-employed members in organising for social change. We follow the principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), sarvadharma (integrating all faiths, all people) and khadi (propagation of local employment and self reliance).


The Self Employed Women's Assoication. SEWA was born in 1972 as a trade union of self employed women. It grew out of the Textile Labour Association , TLA, India's oldest and largest union of textile workers founded in 1920 by a women, Anasuya Sarabhai. The inspiration for the union came from Mahatma Gandhi, who led a successful strike of textile workers in 1917. He believed in creating positive organised strength by awakening the consciousness in workers. By developing unity as well as personality, a worker should be able to hold his or her own against tyranny from employers or the state. To develop this strength he believed that a union should cover all aspects of worker's lives both in the factory and at home. 

Against this background of active involvement in industrial relations, social work and local, state and national politics, the ideological base provided by Mahatma Gandhi and the feminist seeds planted by Anasuya Sarabhai led to the creation by the TLA of their Women's Wing in 1954. Its original purpose was to assist women belonging to households of mill wokers and its work was focussed largly on traning and welfare activities. By 1968, classes in sewing, kniting, embroidery, spinning, press composition typing and stenography were established in centres throughout the city for the wives and daughters of mill workers.

The scope of its activities expanded in the early 1970's when a survery was conducted to probe complaints by women tailors. of exploitation by contractors. The survey broght out other instances of exploitatation of women workers and revealed the large numbers untouched by unionisation government legisation and policies. 

In 1971, a small group of migrant women working as cart-pullers in Ahmedabad's cloth market came to the TLA with their labour contractor. He had heard of a transport workers' union organised by the TLA and thought they might be able to help the women find some housing. At the time, the women were living in the streets without shelter. They were sent to see Ela Bhatt, the Head of Women's Wing. After talking with the women in her office, she went with them to the areas where they were living and to the market area where they were working. While there, she met another group of women who were working as head-loaders, carrying loads of clothes between the wholesale and retail markets. As she sat with them on the steps of the warehouses where they waited for work, they discussed their jobs and their low and erratic wages.

Following the meeting, Ela Bhatt wrote an article for the local newspaper and detailed the problems of the head-loaders. The cloth merchants countered the charges against them with a news article of their own, denying the allegations and testifying to their fair treatment of the head-loaders. The Women's Wing turned the release of this story to their own advantage by reprinting the merchant's claims on the cards and distributing them to use as leverage with the merchants.

Soon word of this effective ploy spread and a group of used garment dealers approached the Women's Wing with their own grievances. A public meeting of used garment dealers was called and over hundred women attended. During the meeting in a public park, a women from the crowd suggested they form an association of their own. Thus, on an appeal from the women and at the initiative of the leader of the Women's Wing, Ela Bhatt, and the president of the TLA, Arvind Buch, the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) was born in December 1971. 

The women felt that as a workers' association, SEWA should establish itself as a Trade Union. This was a fairly novel idea, because the self-employed have no real history of organising.The first struggle SEWA undertook was obtaining official recognition as Trade Union. The Labour Department refused to register SEWA because they felt that since there was no recognised employer, the workers would have no one to struggle against. We argued that a Union was not necessarily against an employer, but was for the unity of the workers. Finally, SEWA was registered as a Trade Union in April 1972. 

SEWA grew continuously from 1972, increasing in its membership and including more and more different occupations within its fold. The beginning of the Women's Decade in 1975 gave a boost to the growth of SEWA, placing it within the women's movement. In 1977, SEWA's General Secretary, Ela Bhatt, was awarded prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award and this brought international recognition to SEWA. 

By 1981, relations between SEWA and TLA had deteriorated. TLA did not appreciate an assertive women's group in its midst. Also, the interests of TLA, representing workers of the organised sector often came into conflict with the demands of SEWA, representing unorganised women workers. The conflict came to a head in 1981 during the anti-reservation riots when members of higher castes attacked the Harijans, many of whom were members of both TLA and SEWA. SEWA spoke out in defense of the Harijans, whereas TLA remained silent. Because of this outspokenness, TLA threw out SEWA from its fold. After the separation from TLA, SEWA grew even faster and started new initiatives. In particular, the growth of many new co-operatives, a more militant trade union and many supportive services has given SEWA a new shape and direction.

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