Women Workers Union in Tamil Nadu

By Edie Strachan, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (Canada)

What? You didn’t know there was a session on the Women Workers Union in Tamil Nadu?  Well neither did I until .... the scheduled event “Empowering Women Survivors of Slavery” was a no-show by the event sponsors. 

Upon finally realizing this event wasn’t going to happen, a sister suggested we – the audience - could still utilize the time to discuss important issues. 

I immediately recognized the speaker Sujata Modi as a woman with whom I sat at a previous UNSWC event.  Sujata had a very interesting and inspiring story about creating a Women Workers' Union and I suggested to the class that we could begin by hearing her story.

The Women Workers' Union is an independent trade union of women workers in the informal sector with a membership of more than 18,000 in Chennai, Kanchipuram and Thirvallur Districts in India.  The union, made up of domestic workers, construction workers, sweepers and street vendors has been campaigning for fair wages, social security and a violence-free workplace since 2001.

In 2010, a core team of activists recognized more and more young women began working in factories for the export garment industry and were being overworked, underpaid and often abused.  They began organizing the women and the Garment and Fashion Workers Union was formed.

Sujata talked about the 1948 Minimum Wages Act which required an increase in basic minimum wage every five years and how textile manufacturers repeatedly challenged the raises.  The last increase in 2004 was challenged but not implemented.

They continued the fight and another order to increase wages was issued in 2014.  Manufacturers and exporters immediately filed over 500 petitions to the High Court to overturn the order.  However, the court ruled in July 2016 to dismiss the applications and ordered a pay rise of up to 30% for hundreds of thousands of garment workers.  It was the first minimum wage hike in more than 12 years.  Under the ruling, workers would see their pay rise from a month average of 4500 rupees to 6500 rupees ($67 - $97).

Research shows a significantly higher organizing win rate when the organizers reflect the workers they are attempting to organize. In the USA, the win rate for female lead organizers averages 53%.  The win rate is even higher when the race and gender of the organizer aligns with the workers:  women of color who organize units with over 75% women of colour have a win rate of 89%.

This is why female leaders like Sujata are winning.  Women want/need more than a union that just deals with wages and working conditions.  They need leadership that they can relate to and who recognize the connection between what women workers face on the job AND what they are dealing with at home in order to create a life/work balance.  Sujata is able to bring new members to the labour movement by addressing issues around female workers’ employment which many trade unions have either ignored, excluded or have not been able to overcome.

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