SEWA Co-operative Federation’s journey to empowering informal women workers

International editor Anca Voinea talks to Mirai Chatterjee about Ela Bhatt’s legacy and the role of women’s co-ops in India

It has been a year of celebration but also one of loss for SEWA Co-operative Federation, with the death of its founder Elaben Bhatt on 2 November.

Formed in 1992 as India’s first women’s federation, SEWA celebrated its 30th anniversary with a series of events culminating with a national workshop in Delhi on 13-14 December. The workshop explored a range of issues around the ease of doing business for women’s co-operatives, says SEWA chair Mirai Chatterjee, who also serves as director of its Social Security Unit.

I caught up with her over Zoom, two weeks ahead of the workshop. Two minutes into the interview, her thoughts turn to Bhatt – a leader, she says, whose legacy SEWA Cooperative Federation will strive to build on.

Chatterjee was introduced to trade unions while a history student at Harvard. In those days, women’s rights, labour issues and divesting of universities’ investments in the apartheid regime of South Africa were in the spotlight. Chatterjee was also involved in supporting the US United Farm Workers union. Through her interest in labour issues, she met Bhatt in Ahmedabad, India, before taking a postgraduate degree.

Related: Tributes paid as Sewa founder Ela Bhatt dies at 89

For most co-operators around the world Elaben Bhatt was a co-operative icon but for Chatterjee she was also “ben” (sister) and a mentor. “Elaben said: ‘We need young women who are ready to work with informal women workers so think about us when you finish your studies – so I did,” she recalls. 

After gaining her master’s at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health in the US, Chatterjee got a work placement, before returning to India in 1984 to work for SEWA. Her main task was to start up a community-based primary healthcare programme for members.

“I did not know much about co-operatives,” she says. She witnessed the effect some of SEWA’s co-ops were having on members. The Sabina co-operative, which brought together hundreds of women artisans, helped them secure their own materials, sell directly to consumers, and gain access credit to upgrade their equipment. Meanwhile, the SEWA Bank gave thousands of informal women workers access to loans. 

And in Gujarat, where SEWA is based,  it set up several women’s dairy co-ops tackle their lack of representation and empower them in the industry, one of the state’s key sectors.

Building on these successes, Chatterjee worked with Bhatt and her husband, Ramesh Bhatt, to set up a health co-op for SEWA members. At first it was an idea she “could not get her head around”, but she soon came to realise it was “not only possible but also required”.

It took two years to convince the register that their idea was viable. It was the first co-operative of grassroots community health workers and traditional midwives in India. “There are other types of health co-operatives, but they are large hospitals in Kerala not this type of grassroots practitioners, themselves informal workers, serving other informal workers and their families,” she says.

By May 1990 the co-operative had received the register’s approval. “Thirty-two years later, not only have we pushed their doubts aside because our co-operative has been financially viable for years, but we are also regularly getting a grade in the government audits here.”

Key to the project’s financial viability was listening to women carefully, says Chatterjee. To support its members, SEWA Federation decided to start “a small low-cost, rational, generic medicine counter”.

Related: Ela Bhatt’s Congress keynote looks to a nurturing economy in 100-mile communities

Buying the drugs in bulk means SEWA can offer members lower prices.  Within a year, they were able to make the business sustainable.

In light of this initiative, the government offered SEWA seed capital to set up and run a 24/7-medicine counter in a public hospital. This led to several other similar counters, along with an ayurvedic medicine production unit.

“In this way, we found a revenue model for the co-operative,” says Chatterjee.

Despite expanding into new sectors, Chatterjee says the federation’s vision has stayed the same over the past 30 years – “to organise the informal women workers and their families for full employment and self-reliance and towards a society based on justice, equity and equality for all women and workers”.

SEWA Cooperative Federation’s history can be traced back to the struggle for workers’ rights led by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). Set up in 1972, the SEWA is a trade union that promotes the rights of women working in the informal economy. It has more than 1.5 million women informal worker members. The federation was tasked with supporting SEWA’s co-operatives with capacity building in terms of management, marketing, and policy and advocacy work.

“In labour surplus economies like India, where so many workers are looking for work and employment, the typical union approach will not work,” says Chatterjee. “Unless workers have different options and choices, including forming their own co-operatives, it’s very difficult for them to have bargaining power against powerful interests.”

Bhatt understood the need to bring union model and co-op models together, she adds, after witnessing the impact of co-operatives while studying at the Afro-Asian Institute of Labour and Co-operation in Tel Aviv, where she obtained an international diploma of labour and co-operatives in 1971.

“She said that was always an eye opener, because in those days the national airline was run as a co-operative, everything was a co-operative. So this gave her a very good idea of all co-operatives could do,” recalls Chatterjee.

Shortly after setting up the SEWA Federation, Bhatt and her colleagues started working on setting up a bank for women micro entrepreneurs who needed financial services.

Related: SEWA’s role in a changing world of work

“Other banks thought the women were not bankable, so the women formed their own bank as a co-operative,” says Chatterjee. “These were the early experiences which actually cemented our faith and our trust in co-operatives as a way to not just get organised but also build solidarity. We think that in post-pandemic world, where we’re still building resilience, we’re still trying to rebuild livelihoods, local and national economies, what better way than co-operatives? 

“Because they’re local, they’re in people’s control, and we have seen again and again that co-operatives can jumpstart economies because they are building back better from below. In an increasingly unequal world, made even more unequal by Covid-19, this is a way of building back together in an inclusive, and more just manner. Our beloved late founder had deep faith in these types of co-operatives, in the co-operative movement, in membership based organisations that function in a democratic and co-operative manner.” 

Speaking of the impact of the pandemic on SEWA Federation and its member co-ops, Chatterjee says: “We don’t have words to describe this period and are grateful that it’s in the past now, hopefully such things won’t happen again.”

SEWA played a key part in the co-op response to Covid-19 in India

SEWA responded to the crisis by holding health education and awareness sessions to tackle misconceptions about the pandemic, distributing health kits, oximeters, thermometers, immunity boosters and paracetamol, linking up with the government’s healthcare system, delivering food packs and hot meals to those in need. Through its insurance co-operatives, SEWA negotiated with big insurance companies to provide products for affected members who were either isolating at home or in hospital.

Some co-ops were able to secure work during the pandemic: those in the catering sector distributed hot food while those in crafts switched to making masks, soaps and sanitisers. Agricultural co-ops had difficulty getting products transported but overcame this with support from SEWA Federation. Domestic worker co-ops and cleaning co-ops also received cash payments from SEWA to help them cope.

UK co-operatives also stepped in and provided £100,000 through the International Co-operative Working Group. The funding supported 12 Indian co-operatives and 400 micro entrepreneurs to rebuild their businesses, buy raw materials and re-establish market links. SEWA also used this substantial donation as a bargaining tool to leverage support from corporate donors, securing additional funds for women farmers and a catering co-operative in this way. 

“This was the kind of support and partnership that was really very special, very timely, and very important to us,” says Chatterjee.

As to the future, she thinks women’s co-ops will continue to thrive in India. Through the recently established Ministry for Cooperation, the country is drafting a national co-op policy.

“We have been giving some of our experience and recommendations to the ministry in the hope that they find some recommendations and in the new policy,” says Chatterjee.

Autonomy is one of the issues she would like addressed, and she warns that co-operatives can sometimes be seen by governments as instruments to reach the grassroots.

“The autonomy of co-operatives, including women’s co-operatives, must be maintained and that should be enshrined in the law,” she argues. “The law says that it’s a constitutional right of Indians to form co-operatives. The amendment to the constitution happened in 2012 and we’re proud of that. So the autonomy and freedom of association must be maintained.”

Amendments to tax law would also be welcome, she says. India’s government has provided tax incentives for some types of collectives, such as farmer producer organisations, but not co-ops.

“We have been saying that up to a certain turnover, which can be mutually decided with the government, income tax should be waived,” she adds. “It doesn’t make sense for small women’s co-ops. We’re making modest surplus to be paying income tax to the government of India. The whole point of these co-operatives is that they provide income and employment to grassroots level women, otherwise not able to get by. We would like the income tax and the goods and service tax to be waived for co-operatives up to a certain turnover.” 

Simplifying the registration process for co-operatives could also help, she says. States get to decide on co-operative laws and legislation varies, with some, including Gujarat, having a more favourable environment for co-ops. Other states do not recognise some of the economic activities around which women can form co-ops.

SEWA women
Women members of SEWA attending a meeting (c) SEWA Federation

Open interference by some states can also be detrimental. “We want an enabling environment for co-operatives in general and particularly women’s co-operatives,” adds Chatterjee, who also calls for improvements to governance models in the sector. Women play a key role in sectors such as agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry or fisheries, but are not represented at leadership level, she warns.

“This year, we celebrate 75 years of our independence. Surely there should be more women leaders in the co-operative movement in India, if not in Asia,” she argues. “That has got to change.” 

Having capacity building programmes for good governance for leadership, that are appropriate for women at the grassroots could also be beneficial, she adds. But legislative change alone cannot address certain issues around female representation – such as their presence at board level, she says. “It’s about the practice. You have to put it into practice.”

Other challenges include the lack of recognition of some economic activities carried out by women, making the government’s marketing portals more user friendly, ensuring women’s co-ops have access to financial services, working capital and insurance and bridging the gender digital gap. All of these issues and more are on the agenda at SEWA’s workshop in December. The recommendations emerging from the workshop will be shared with the Ministry of Cooperation.

“Some of the members of a new committee that has been established to develop the new co-operative policy will be present and will be speaking at this workshop,” she adds. “We hope they will take the recommendations over to the committee.”

In terms of what’s next for SEWA, Chatterjee says the federation intends to continue training young grassroots researchers, an area it recently entered using funding from UK co-ops. “During Covid, we found that many people wanted to commission surveys. And people like to hire young women as data entry operators.” 

SEWA provides training to young women who learn how to use technology, enter data, make videos and take photographs.

Another focus will be attracting more young women within the federation. “We feel that there should be more younger women, younger women leaders in the co-operative movement,” says Chatterjee. “As we are making that demand of the Indian co-operative movement, we should start with ourselves and lead by example. So we have several young new co-operators in the co-ops and in the SEWA Co-operative Federation.”

The federation is still registered as a co-operative in the state of Gujarat, but is exploring the possibility of becoming a multi state co-operative so it can extend its services to women’s co-ops across the country.

“We intend to do that by strengthening ourselves as an enterprise support system,” says Chatterjee. “We will provide business development services, capacity building and governance related services, compliance related services, research market surveys. We already have a team that is providing these kinds of services. And then we charge a modest fee.

“As we help co-operatives find their own sustainability, financial sustainability and also democratic governance and control by women, the same applies to the SEWA Co-operative Federation. We must be financially sustainable only then we can be useful to our co-operatives.” 

The apex is also looking to strengthen international co-operation and work closely with the international trade union movement and organisations such as Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), which Chatterjee chairs.

“I think it’s important for unions and co-operatives to once again remember their history, come together and work as one and push for social and solidarity, particularly in the context of climate change and climate justice struggles,” she says.

And back home in India, where 81.8% of women’s employment is concentrated in the informal economy, it’s clear SEWA Co-operative Federation will need to continue its crucial role in supporting women informal workers.


In this article: