Spotlight on Cooperatives

Towards self-reliance: SEWA Cooperative Federation in India

Article | 16 August 2017
SEWA cooperative members
The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a national union of 1.5 million informal women workers in 14 states of India founded in 1972 by Ela Bhatt, a lawyer and a labour organiser. As SEWA organized workers, it realized the need for cooperatives along with the union. It came upon this as a result of many a struggle for minimum wages which did not result in the desired outcomes. This was not only because of lack of collective strength and bargaining power of the workers, but also because with few opportunities for alternative employment, workers were unable to withstand the various pressures by powerful economic interests during strikes and other struggles. One such campaign for minimum wages for garment workers resulted in their developing their own production unit, providing a viable alternative to the exploitative middlemen and large merchants. This grew into the first SEWA-promoted production cooperative in 1977. In 1974, SEWA Bank had already established itself as a sustainable financial services’ cooperative.

From these experiences, SEWA developed its strategy of ‘struggle and development’ through unions and cooperatives. Unions and cooperatives both entail struggle and development as workers organize for decent work and income. They are both democratic, membership-based, organizations, run and owned by workers. Hence, SEWA chose these organizational forms for uniting women workers of the informal economy.

From the first two cooperatives, today SEWA has promoted more than 115 across the country. In Gujarat alone, SEWA promoted 106 cooperatives used, owned and managed by informal women workers by the early 1990’s. Hence, it was decided to set up the Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Cooperative Federation Limited (Federation) in 1992 for women’s economic empowerment and self-reliance, through their own cooperatives.

Currently, the Federation has organized 300,000 women into 106 primary cooperatives with an annual turn-over of Rs 3 billion Rupees or US $ 46.8 million. Informal women workers are democratically elected to their own boards. These women are connected to the Federation through their own cooperatives which are affiliated to the Federation. The members are share-holders of their cooperatives. Currently the affiliated primary cooperatives pay the Federation a one-time affiliation fee. They also pay for services rendered like capacity-building, as described below. The largest of the Federation’s member cooperatives is SEWA Bank with 200,000 share-holders and working capital of Rs 2.6 Billion Rupees or US $ 40.6 million.

The Federation’s objective is to organize women workers into cooperatives for full employment and self-reliance. Full employment includes work and income security, food security and social security. The latter includes at least health care, child care, insurance, pension and housing with basic amenities like a tap and toilet in every home. Self-reliance entails economic viability, and also means that women are in charge of decision-making and control of their own organizations, and over their lives, in general.

The SEWA Cooperative Federation’s Activities

  • Organizing women into their own cooperatives and assisting them to register their cooperatives;
  • Supporting the newly registered cooperatives by helping them conduct their first annual general meeting and elections of their boards;
  • Capacity-building of member cooperatives through structured training programmes including on principles of cooperatives, roles and responsibilities of board members, how to run board meetings, maintain minutes, and how to read balance sheets;
  • Mentoring member cooperatives including through developing business plans and assisting in ensuring all compliances -audit, minutes etc.;
  • Marketing of products made or services provided by member cooperatives including running a vegetable shop in the APMC wholesale market offering fair prices for women farmers, running a marketing outlet (SEWA Kalakruti) where women artisans’ products are exhibited and sold, organizing buyers and sellers meets and facilitating participation of artisans in exhibitions, trade fairs and craft ‘melas’;
  • Linking member cooperatives with each other for both livelihood opportunities and social protection by ensuring all women have access to insurance, pension, health care, child care and housing through linking with women’s cooperatives and other organizations, linking with government and private services providers for social protection mentioned above, and linking with government and private organizations for skill-building and skill upgrading; and
  • Undertaking policy action to promote women’s cooperatives and their recognition including through workshops with policy-makers and cooperatives’ women leaders to address concerns of their primary cooperatives and representation on state and national level boards and committees.

Types of SEWA Cooperative Federation’s members

Artisanal cooperatives (block-printers, embroiderers, and puppet-makers)
Dairy cooperatives
Land-based cooperatives – women farmers
Savings & credit cooperatives
Service & labor cooperatives – catering, domestic work, cleaning, construction, child care, health care
Vendors cooperatives (fish and vegetables)

Structure of the SEWA Cooperative Federation

The Federation is itself registered as a cooperative and is a state-level organization, governed by the cooperative laws of Gujarat state in India. Under the Indian Constitution, organizing into cooperatives is a fundamental right, but the states, under our federal structure, are responsible for all matters pertaining to cooperatives.

The Federation has a board of 15 directors elected every five years from among the affiliated member-cooperatives. The board meets every three months and an Annual General Assembly (AGM) is held once a year where designated representatives (usually the Chairpersons and the Secretaries) gather to learn about and accept the year’s activities and the audited accounts.

The Federation has a team of 15 staff, including professionals in management and training. The Federation charges modest fees for its services like registering cooperatives, capacity-building and auditing of accounts. It also raised funds through grants. It is not yet fully financially sustainable, but once it becomes viable, it will share its surplus with its member cooperatives. Also, when it generates surplus above certain stipulated limits, it will have to pay income tax as per Indian law.

Opportunities & Challenges

There are plenty of work opportunities, especially in the service sector and new sectors of the Indian economy which is growing at 6.5 per cent annually. The challenge is how to promote cooperatives, help them grow and become viable and then, in turn, ensure that their Federation continues to be viable in serving them.