It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Sister Ela R. Bhatt, the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, on November 2, 2022. Throughout the Asia-Pacific Region, IUF affiliates have expressed their condolences to the members of SEWA.
Over the past three days, thousands of tributes have been published by the mainstream media, Civil Society Organizations, trade unions and the academic world in honour of Elaben, recognizing her extraordinary life committed to justice for women and her incredible contribution to women’s rights and empowerment.
Clearly Elaben’s teachings, values and guidance continue to resonate with women around the world. Elaben’s call to rebuild and restore mutually supporting local communities in which women play a leading role is needed now more than ever in the face of the climate crisis, food crisis and global economic crisis. Just as important in these fearful times of violence, conflict and war, is the example of Elaben’s deep commitment to peaceful transformation and non-violent means. It is in this nexus of women’s power, economic justice and peace, that we find the answers that governments cannot.
We also recall that Elaben was committed not only to women’s rights, but to organizing women workers. Empowerment was achieved not just through the improvement of incomes and livelihoods of women through access to resources and entrepreneurship, but in actively building their collective power as workers in a trade union.
The very origins of SEWA lie in the struggle to establish SEWA not only as an organization of women working in a range of home-based and informal sector occupations, but as a trade union of women workers. Labour Department authorities at state level initially opposed the registration of SEWA as a trade union because its members have no employer. Elaben argued that bringing together women workers in unity – ensuring their collective representation and collective power – is what makes SEWA a trade union, not the presence or absence of an employer. SEWA was subsequently registered as a trade union on April 12, 1972.
This lesson remains important for us today as millions of young workers are designated as self-employed and need to come together for collective representation and collective power. They need – and have a right to form – a trade union.
SEWA established the organized, collective bargaining power of self-employed women workers for the first time. Among IUF’s membership in SEWA, the tremendous success of the beedi (tobacco) women workers in collectively bargaining the prices paid by buyers is an example of this. The same experience was repeated with women dairy workers. The collective representation and strength of SEWA as a trade union also enabled vegetable vendors and food sellers to defend their rights and interests in negotiating with government authorities. This is the empowerment flowing from the values and work of Elaben and the economic and social justice she hoped for. As Elaben wrote in the first issue of SEWA Rashtriya Patrika, in April 2016, through organizing women can “achieve much needed VOICE, VISIBILITY and VALIDATION”.
To honour Elaben’s lifelong commitment to economic and social justice for women workers and their collective empowerment, the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Organization will ensure that the ideas, writings, lessons and actions of Elaben are taught to a younger generation of trade union leaders in the region. Indeed, it is Elaben’s actions – of going out to talk to women workers, to be among them, to help them build the confidence to become leaders themselves – that is our most important lesson of all.
Photo of Elaben with vegetable sellers in Ahmedabad after winning legal protection of their rights as street vendors. The photo is taken on February 25, 2010, by photographer Tom Pietrasik