Renana Jhabvala, a labor and women’s rights champion whose organization has won worldwide acclaim, including effusive praise from Hillary Clinton, says she is is confident that Indian and U.S. unions can work together on nettlesome issues such as outsourcing.
News about Disney and Toys R Us planning to outsource dozens of tech jobs to India, and bringing prospective new employees to the United States for training by the American workers they would replace, made headlines and caused an uproar in this country.
“It’s not possible to declare, ‘Don’t send jobs to India,’ ” Jhabvala says in an interview during a visit to Madison to speak at the University of Wisconsin. “What is possible is to jointly challenge the multinationals to agree to fair rates and fair conditions so that a race to the bottom doesn’t take place.”
Jhabvala has other advice for American unions.
“In the old days, U.S. and European unions used to provide all sorts of services to their members, such as lending, counseling, and child care,” she says. “Now, all of that is gone and needs to be brought back.”
Jhabvala believes that American unions can learn a lot from her group, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA, or service in Hindi). It has helped organize more than 1.8 million women in the informal sector.
“You can’t only look at people as workers if you’re organizing them,” Jhabvala says. “You have to engage in new forms of organizing, such as community organizing and meeting them at homes.”
Jhabvala has an interesting background. Her mother, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is the only person ever to have won a Booker (for her novel Heat and Dust) and an Oscar (actually, two, for the screenplays of A Room With a View and Howard’s End). Her paternal grandfather was a pioneering trade unionist in India put in jail by the British for five years, while her paternal grandmother was an early women’s rights champion.
“I had heard stories about my grandfather and his trade unionism, and my grandmother was involved in the early feminist movement,” says Jhabvala. “SEWA was attractive to me because it combined trade unionism and feminism.”
Jhabvala came to this country for her college education, and went back in India after attending Harvard and Yale. SEWA attracted her even more after she met the legendary founder Ela Bhatt (winner of the Right Livelihood Award, the “Alternative Nobel,” among other international honors). Hillary Clinton has cited Bhatt as a “heroine” of hers.
Clinton actually visited the organization’s headquarters in India when she was first lady.
“She was smart and knew the issue very well,” remembers Jhabvala. “She was really empathetic.”
Battling to organize women in conditions very different from the United States has been a long labor of love for Jhabvala, who has worked with SEWA for three decades.
“In the West, the notion of labor is restrictive, with the employee and the employer in one formal workplace,” she says. “In India, there are different types of relationships, with 50 percent of workers being self-employed.”
This is her association’s biggest challenge.
“When the women are street vendors, who do you bargain with?” asks Jhabvala. “You have to negotiate with the police and municipal authorities that treat them as criminals, and try to get space for them.”
Sometimes, this means battling the government for years. A famous flea market next to the historic Red Fort in Delhi has been shut down and reopened a number of times due to the constant tussle between the government and groups such as SEWA. Finally, the Indian Supreme Court affirmed, and the Indian parliament passed a law recognizing the rights of street vendors.
SEWA’s mission goes beyond getting its members their basic rights. Street vendors have to borrow money sometimes at a mind-boggling 10 percent per day interest rate to purchase their wares, often from the same wholesalers that sell them their goods. SEWA has set up a bank to help women involved in the informal economy. Jhabvala tells the story of a woman whose home-stored cash was in good part eaten up by rats.
“Even though we have helped organize so many women, we believe that rights are not enough,” says Jhabvala. “We have also set up a family of organizations—all member-owned—including a bank and several companies.”
Jhabvala emphasizes that the microfinance that her group engages in is quite different from that conducted, by say, the Nobel-winning Grameen Bank.
Such organizations “are about poor women, but run by men,” she says. “We are controlled by women.”
A number of SEWA’s members are home-based workers linked in global supply chains with clothing giants such as Gap. These behemoths outsource much of their work to Indian exporters, who, in turn, employ subcontractors. At the end of the line are self-employed women workers that SEWA tries to organize. Instead of partnering with these home-based workers, Jhabvala says, the multinationals try to cut them off whenever there is bad publicity. SEWA has been trying to persuade these companies to set up a code of conduct and to buy directly from the women.
The current rightwing government in India is not making things easier for people like Jhabvala. SEWA was one of the groups that organized a nationwide strike last month to protest the government’s labor policies. More worrisome is the ruling coalition’s antagonism toward civil society organizations. International gatherings of these groups now have to be cleared by three separate ministries, Jhabvala says, and their financial accounts are being systematically audited. Plus, due to the regime’s unfriendliness toward minorities, Hindu-Muslim relations have deteriorated, making her organization’s work more difficult.
India presents multiple obstacles for organizing women.
“Women in the lower 70 percent of the population have low self-esteem,” she says. “You ask women working hard around the farm what they do, and the answer will be: ‘Nothing.’ ”
“It’s a big challenge for us: to tell them to speak up,” she adds. “They can’t articulate for themselves.”
Things are changing, albeit slowly. Not long ago, Jhabvala says, the impulse was to families generally married off their daughters very early. Now the trend is for girls to get some education, and then be married off.
“In the next generation, progress will come,” says Jhabvala. Jhabvala is doing her best to give it a push.