COVID-19 Response: SEWA Cooperative Federation on health, livelihood and social protection strategies for immediate and long-term relief among informal women workers

News | 29 March 2020


©Collin Mcclain
As more and more parts of the world declare lockdown measures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the damage to economies and livelihoods is rapidly escalating and giving rise to additional forms of distress during this healthcare crisis. The outbreak is widely being considered two epidemics - a health crisis and a livelihood loss epidemic.

Already amongst the most vulnerable in normal times, informal economy workers find themselves bearing the brunt of this economic fallout. With physical distancing measures in place, their usual channels of income are broken, many stranded in places away from their homes, without proper shelter and supplies, and often without the capacity and awareness to prevent exposure to the infection.

In the SEWA Cooperative Federation through our work with cooperatives, we have been able to document significant losses around the following areas:
  • Many farmers are not able to sell their produce, given that many of the main markets have been shut down. 
  • Some local shopkeepers are taking advantage of the situation by hiking prices for hygiene products and other daily needs. This is a blow to women who do not have any work.
  • Many domestic workers and cleaners will not have guaranteed paid leave for the duration of the shutdown. The cleaning cooperative - Saundarya - has women of some of the most vulnerable castes among their members whose cleaning work has stopped, severely affecting their income.
  • Childcare centres run by the health care cooperative have been closed, but the members are distributing one meal a day to children that live in close proximity from the centres. Raw materials are bought in the first week of the month, therefore the current stock will last until the end of March. At the time of this article was written, the centres have no stock of raw materials or source of revenue.
From April 1st, Gujarat government committed to providing free food items - including 3.5 kg wheat and 1.5 kg rice per person, and 1 kg of pulses, sugar and salt per family, to around 60 lakhs households or 3.25 crore individuals, holding ration cards. Additionally, it has been declared that it will give an advance of one month's pension or assistance to senior citizens, widows, mothers, women and differently-abled people. Finally, industrialists and shopkeepers have been exempted from paying fixed charges levied in the electricity bill. They will only be charged for the actual use of electricity for the month of April. There is no information yet on how these payments will be made - i.e. only to those with Jan Dhan Accounts, or other qualifying criteria. From our experience, we anticipate operational roadblocks may affect supply of these provisions.

Of our active cooperatives, most are classified as essential services, and are therefore functioning. These include 65 milk cooperatives and SEWA Bank. While our health cooperative - Lok Swasthya’s medicine shops are classified as essential services, however, the primary healthcare including health education and awareness has been affected by the lockdown. Therefore, SEWA Federation is actively seeking support for 11 cooperatives (including
agriculture, handicrafts, services, and finance), with a total membership of 6300 informal women workers. These do not qualify as essential services and are looking at severe losses.


©Collin Mcclain
The lives of our members- informal women workers, are characterised by insecurity of work and income, and food, as well as limited or no access to social security. At this stage of the pandemic in India, the required social distancing will likely worsen the situation for our members. Therefore, the need for immediate intervention is particularly crucial to ensure income, social protection and health security to our members. SEWA Federation has adopted a three-fold strategy: Safeguarding health, Livelihood restoration and Extending social protection and food security.

Our immediate response involves distribution of food. Despite the government’s announcement, our experience suggests that there will be those left out - those without ration cards, migrant workers whose ration cards are from their home states and may not allow them to access food in Gujarat. There is also the possibility of insufficient stock, and also in inadequate quantities given the household size.

Health kits: Due to small homes with many members, social distancing will be difficult for many. To prevent the spread of the virus, we will distribute five 2-layered, washable cloth face masks to each household. We will also distribute hand sanitiser or neem soap.

Cash transfer for sustenance: The COVID19 outbreak and the lockdown measures have imposed restriction on scale of production and activities, impacting revenue for many enterprises. This has a direct impact on our members. Therefore, to ease the inevitable economic pressure, we propose a direct cash transfer.

Our long-term response is working towards the development of a health cadre equipped to respond to a crisis and a livelihood restoration fund for cooperative recovery.

This article was prepared by the staff members of the SEWA Cooperative Federation. More and updated information is available from their website. For more information on the SEWA Cooperative Federation, you can read this interview with Mirai Chatterjee or read this report on “Advancing cooperation among women workers in the informal economy: The SEWA way”. This article is part of the ILO website and subject to its disclaimer.