Regional Director meets trade union leaders empowered to 'work in freedom'

Ms Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, ILO’s Regional Director for Asia and Pacific, met the women working with the Work in Freedom programme, who shared their struggles and victories from the COVID-19 pandemic

Feature | New Delhi, India | 29 July 2022

NEW DELHI, India (ILO news): Ms Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, visited India on mission from 27-29 July. Along with Ms Dagmar Walter, Director, ILO DWT/CO-New Delhi, Ms Asada-Miyakawa met with beneficiaries of the ILO's Work in Freedom (WIF) programme at a low-income neighbourhood in Delhi’s New Ashok Nagar, through the trade union Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), which the programme works with closely.

Since its inception in 2013, the WIF programme has adopted an integrated and targeted approach to developing practices and multisectoral policy measures that reduce women's vulnerability to trafficking and forced labour in South Asian countries.

The programme implements interventions to engage migrant workers, trade unions, civil society organizations, businesses and regulators in a collaborative effort to begin addressing multiple facets of forced labour in areas with high outflows and inflows of low-income women migrants. It especially focuses on sectors where the proportion of women workers is increasing, such as domestic care work and garment manufacturing.

The union leaders working with domestic workers elaborated on how they fight to make household work be viewed as 'dignified' and decent work by making workers aware of their rights. Being a feminized sector, domestic work is seen as a “natural extension of a woman's duties” and not productive. For this reason, there is massive pay parity between the work and wages men and women get in a domestic environment.

When a crisis emerges, like the COVID-19 pandemic, it leads to the development of new terms of work defined for workers, which makes it essential for them to organize to ensure that their rights are safeguarded.

Domestic workers are often migrants from different states and live in extremely squalid conditions. This worsened their pandemic experience, as families of a minimum of four people lived in cramped quarters, having to cook where they sleep and only one communal washroom for around 40 people, leaving no room to socially distance or maintain hygienic living conditions.

During the pandemic, workers remained unpaid for months, were forced to take leaves without pay or were burdened with additional work without fair compensation. Such conditions make upholding all five pillars of ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work critical.

Through the programme, SEWA created Shakti Kendra’s (empowerment centres) in Delhi, which reach out to women workers in the informal economy to improve their access to social security, livelihoods and health security. Through these Shakti Kendra’s these women have acquired appropriate documentation, like identity proofs, which promote safe migration and help them access work, and learned skills like wage negotiation.

They also help workers acquire appropriate documentation for their children to access schools to ensure the movement of their parents does not impact their education. The union also serves as an information repository of government social security schemes and helps the workers access them.

The programme developed a cadre of 50 women grassroots leaders (Aagewans). They make home visits to members and discuss issues faced at work and problems affecting the community, like the lack of street lighting after dark. This hampers work flexibility, as it prevents women from engaging in work beyond certain hours. They also deliver facilities like health checkups.

The Aagewans shared their innovative approaches to address the workers’ problems, like engaging in social dialogue by WhatsApp-ing employers and collectively bargaining for their rights at work. Another technique they adopted for wage negotiations and changing the perception of domestic work was giving the workers uniforms to associate it with decent work.

Trade unions partnered with WIF have also consistently worked to promote the ratification of C189 and C190 at the provincial and central levels.

The meeting concluded with the ILO lauding the ingenuity of the union members, which forms the building block for ensuring decent work for all and economic growth through an approach where no one is left behind.