for building a democratic labour movement in India
Labour imperialism in India: The case of SEWA
Timothy Kerswell and Surendra Pratap
Geoforum; Volume 85, October 2017, Pages 20–22
The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is almost universally praised for its work in organizing women in India’s informal sector but has never been examined from a critical perspective. In this study, we critically assess the SEWA movement both in terms of its big picture strategy and its grass roots structure. We find that the strategies and tactics employed by SEWA expose the Indian working class to significant imperialist intervention through donations by highly politicized groups, which have given these groups significant leverage over the organization.
A key issue at stake is the extent to which the activities of SEWA have improved or restricted the agency of working class women. An important debate that has been discussed primarily within the disciplines of human and labour geography concerns workers’ agency within specific spaces (Herod, 1997; Herod, 1998; Herod, 2001; Wills, 1998 ; Coe and Jordhus-Lier, 2010). Coe and Jordhus-Lier have further argued that “agency is relational and can only ever be understood as such by considering, in turn, labour’s positionality with respect to global production networks, the state and the public sector, the wider community and labour market intermediaries” (Ibid, p214).
Unions, as representatives of workers, act as important labour market intermediaries and in many cases play important roles in the community and even in government. This paper endeavours to contribute to the understanding of how SEWA and its approach to both trade unionism and cooperatives in India but also in the global South more generally. In turn, we also hope to demonstrate the hegemonization of SEWA by trade union imperialism, which in combination with the location of informal sector workers within global production networks, contributes significantly to their disempowerment. We also note that SEWA is characterized by an ideology of liberal entrepreneurialism, which enables the movement to seamlessly dovetail with imperialist organizations, and with an overall narrative that is supportive of neoliberal capitalism, albeit with a human face.
Writers, such as Agarawala (2013), have argued that organizations such as SEWA constitute a new form of politics, namely the politics of the Indian informal sector, which they consider the only acceptable method to follow under globalization. We believe that such perspectives endorse capitalist globalization. We will argue that SEWA as an organization is a product of hegemonic forms of imperialism, both in the trade union imperialism, as discussed by Scipes (2010a), and in the hegemonic imperialism from the US government itself. SEWA’s rise to significance can be seen in the spread of SEWA to various parts of India, but also importantly, to different countries in the global South and on the international stage in the UN apparatus and in the international trade union movement. The case of SEWA as a model of trade unionism is therefore an extremely important one to consider in terms of its impact in India but also on global labour politics.