International Women's Day 2017
“Young women must fight for equality” says lady trade unionist Dr Hemlata
“The present policy trajectory that favours the rich needs to be changed to being pro-worker and pro-women” said the president of Centre of India Trade Unions (CITU) to ILO India while interviewed on the role of women in the world work and the trade union movement.
Please tell us about how it was for you, as a woman, to undertake the journey from a trade union worker to becoming the president of one of the major trade union centres of this country?
My journey with CITU began in 1979 when it held its first all India Convention of Working Women in Chennai. I was still practicing my medical profession at that time. CITU state committee was actively trying to develop its women cadres, they nominated me as a member of the first All India Coordination Committee of Working Women. I gave up my medical practice in 1993 and joined CITU full time. From being elected as the general secretary of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers' Union and Beedi Workers union to becoming one of the secretaries of the Andhra Pradesh state committees of CITU, to serving as the general secretary of All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers’ (government sponsored child-care and mother-care centre) and Helpers ‘union – I have had the opportunity to discharge various responsibilities.
CITU formed All India Coordination Committee of Working Women (AICCWW) to organize women workers, bring them into the mainstream trade union movement, and develop their capacities so that they can take up more responsibilities in the trade union movement.
We have been ardently organizing women in sectors such as anganwadi work, ASHAs, midday meal workers, beedi, plantation, and traditional sectors such as cashew, coir, tailoring. This has resulted in considerable increase in the women membership of CITU, at present it stands over 32.4 per cent of the total membership. We have had state level women presidents in states like Andhra Pradesh and now in Karnataka and we also have a state-level woman general secretary of CITU for some time in Karnataka. In many states, we have women working as presidents, general secretaries and treasurers of the district committees of CITU. My election as a president of CITU is a continuation of this entire process to develop and promote women in CITU.
What could be the best strategy to nurture more women leadership in the trade union movement? What is your advice to young women who wish to be active in the trade union movement?
Our experience in CITU shows that there are many capable young women who can take up more responsibilities in the trade union movement, if they are encouraged, trained and given the opportunity.Of course, patriarchal attitudes still dominate both among men and women, but more so among men, who at present are in majority in the trade union movement of India. But if conscious and sustained efforts are made by the leadership of the trade union movement, more young women will come forward to take responsibilities which will in turn embolden the trade union movement. In current times, this is even more necessary as there are increasing attacks on the working and living conditions of the workers, which includes working women.
We have had very encouraging experiences at the way women are actively participating in union activities despite facing victimization, police repression, societal pressures and non-cooperation from their families."Dr Hemlata, President CITU
We have had very encouraging experiences at the way women are actively participating in union activities despite facing victimization, police repression, societal pressures and non-cooperation from their families.
What are the main challenges for the trade union movement in India today?
Workers worldwide have been experiencing attacks on their working conditions under neoliberal policies of globalization. The situation has further deteriorated since the global financial crisis. Wages, social security benefits including pensions, working hours and more importantly the hard won trade union rights are under attack. Trade unions are being derided as being 'anti-development'. Individual action is being promoted against organized actions. The fundamental rights of organization and collective bargaining are being denied. While this is a major challenge, in several countries, influence of right wing forces seeking to divide workers on the basis of religion, region, race, caste, gender, is gaining ground. The challenge for the trade unions is to unite all the workers - irrespective of their religion, region, race, caste - and launch collective actions so as to protect their rights and conditions.
What are some of the main challenges for women in the world of work today? How can women have more opportunities to work in India?
In India, the labour force participation of women has been coming down since the last three decades. Around 96 per cent of women work in the unorganized sector, most of them employed in agricultural activities. Because of the policies being pursued by successive central governments, agriculture in the country is in crisis. We see that the work days have sharply come down, migration has increased, women in the unorganized sector do not have job security, income security or social security and they are not protected by law. Most of them do not get minimum or equal wages, maternity benefits and they have not heard about the 'decent work' of ILO. The government of India too denies the status of 'workers' to roughly 70,00,000 women working as part of its various schemes such as ICDS, NHM, Midday meal programme, National Livelihood Mission, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan and others. They are paid paltry wages and have no social security. Sexual harassment at work place is widely prevalent and the relevant Act is not being implemented. These are some of the challenges.
The government needs to take measures to increase recruitment of more women. It should ensure all the legal provisions like equal wages, maternity benefits, crèches, and other facilities. Public expenditure on health, education too must be increased. Millions of women working as anganwadi employees, ASHAs, midday meal workers and in other government schemes need to be recognized as workers and paid minimum wages and social security benefits. In short, the present policy trajectory that favours the rich needs to be changed to being pro-worker and pro-women.
For more information, please contactMs Diya Banerjee
ILO Country Office for India
Tel.: +91 11 4750-921