Concept and History of SEWA

Concept and History of SEWA

Last updated: November 19, 2019


  • SEWA is a trade union registered in 1972.
  • It is an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers.
  • These are women who earn a living through their own labour or small businesses.
  • They do not obtain regular salaried employment with welfare benefits like workers in the organised sector.
  • They are the unprotected labour force of our country.
  • Constituting 93% of the labour force, these are workers of the unorganised sector.
  • Of the female labour force in India, more than 94% are in the unorganised sector.
  • However, their work is not counted and hence remains invisible.
  • In fact, women workers themselves remain uncounted, undercounted and invisible.


  • SEWA main goals are to organise women workers for full employment.
  • Full employment means employment whereby workers obtain work security, income security, food security and social security.
  • SEWA organises women to ensure that every family obtains full employment.
  • By self-reliance, we mean that women should be autonomous and self-reliant, individually and collectively, both economically and in terms of their decision-making ability.

Self Employed Women’s Association:

  •  At SEWA we organise workers to achieve their goals of full employment and self-reliance through the strategy of struggle and development.
  • The struggle is against the many constraints and limitations imposed on them by society and the economy, while development activities strengthen women bargaining power and offer them new alternatives.
  • Practically, the strategy is carried out through the joint action of union and cooperatives.
  • Gandhian thinking is the guiding force for SEWA poor, self-employed members in organising for social change.
  • We follow the principles of: –
    • Satya (truth)
    • Ahimsa (non-violence)
    • Sarva dharma (integrating all faiths, all people)
    • Khadi (propagation of local employment and self-reliance)


  • SEWA is both an organisation and a movement.
  • The SEWA movement is enhanced by its being a Sangam or confluence of three movements:
    • The labour movement,
    • The cooperative movement and
    • The women’s movement.
  • But it is also a movement of self-employed workers: their own, home-grown movement with women as the leaders.
  • Through their own movement, women become strong and visible.
  • Their tremendous economic and social contributions become recognised With globalization, liberalization and other economic changes.
  • There are both new opportunities as well as threats to some traditional areas of employment.
  • More than ever, our members are ready to face the winds of change.
  • They know that they must organise to build their own strength and to meet challenges.
  • There are still millions of women who remain in poverty and are exploited, despite their long hours of hard labour.
  • They bear the brunt of the changes in our country and must be brought into the mainstream, so as to avail of the new opportunities that are developing with regard to employment.
  • It is their issues, their priorities and needs which should guide and mould the development process in our country.
  • Toward this end, SEWA has been supporting its members in capacity-building and in developing their own economic organisations.


  • SEWA was born in 1972 as a trade union of self-employed women.
  • It grew out of the Textile Labour Association, TLA, India’s oldest and largest union of textile workers founded in 1920 by a woman, Anasuya Sarabhai.
  • The inspiration for the union came from Mahatma Gandhi, who led a successful strike of textile workers in 1917.
  • He believed in creating positive organised strength by awakening the consciousness in workers.
  • By developing unity as well as personality, a worker should be able to hold his or her own against tyranny from employers or the state.
  • To develop this strength he believed that a union should cover all aspects of worker’s lives both in the factory and at home.
  • Against this background of active involvement in industrial relations, social work and local, state and national politics, the ideological base provided by Mahatma Gandhi and the feminist seeds planted by Anasuya Sarabhai led to the creation by the TLA of their Women’s Wing in 1954.
  • Its original purpose was to assist women belonging to households of mill workers and its work was focussed largely on training and welfare activities.
  • By 1968, classes in sewing, knitting, embroidery, spinning, press composition typing and stenography were established in centres throughout the city for the wives and daughters of mill workers.
  • The survey brought out other instances of exploitation of women workers and revealed the large numbers untouched by unionisation government legislation and policies.
  • In 1971, a small group of migrant women working as cart-pullers in Ahmedabad’s cloth market came to the TLA with their labour contractor.
  • He had heard of a transport workers’ union organised by the TLA and thought they might be able to help the women find some housing.
  • At the time, the women were living in the streets without shelter.
  • They were sent to see Ela Bhatt, the Head of Women’s Wing.
  • After talking with the women in her office, she went with them to the areas where they were living and to the market area where they were working.
  • While there, she met another group of women who were working as head-loaders, carrying loads of clothes between the wholesale and retail markets.
  • As she sat with them on the steps of the warehouses where they waited for work, they discussed their jobs and their low and erratic wages.
  • Following the meeting, Ela Bhatt wrote an article for the local newspaper and detailed the problems of the head-loaders.
  • The cloth merchants countered the charges against them with a news article of their own, denying the allegations and testifying to their fair treatment of the head-loaders. The Women’s Wing turned the release of this story to their own advantage by reprinting the merchant’s claims on the cards and distributing them to use as leverage with the merchants.
  • Soon word of this effective ploy spread and a group of used garment dealers approached the Women’s Wing with their own grievances.
  • A public meeting of used garment dealers was called and over hundred women attended.
  • During the meeting in a public park, a woman from the crowd suggested they form an association of their own.
  • Thus, on an appeal from the women and at the initiative of the leader of the Women’s Wing, Ela Bhatt, and the president of the TLA, Arvind Buch, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was born in December 1971.
  • The women felt that as a workers’ association, SEWA should establish itself as a Trade Union.
  • This was a fairly novel idea because the self-employed have no real history of organising.
  • The first struggle SEWA undertook was obtaining official recognition as Trade Union.
  • The Labour Department refused to register SEWA because they felt that since there was no recognised employer, the workers would have no one to struggle against.
  • We argued that a Union was not necessarily against an employer, but was for the unity of the workers.
  • Finally, SEWA was registered as a Trade Union in April 1972.
  • SEWA grew continuously from 1972, increasing in its membership and including more and more different occupations within its fold.
  • The beginning of the Women’s Decade in 1975 gave a boost to the growth of SEWA, placing it within the women’s movement.
  • In 1977, SEWA’s General Secretary, Ela Bhatt, was awarded prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award and this brought international recognition to SEWA.
  • By 1981, relations between SEWA and TLA had deteriorated.
  • TLA did not appreciate an assertive women’s group in its midst.
  • Also, the interests of TLA, representing workers of the organised sector often came into conflict with the demands of SEWA, representing unorganised women workers.
  • The conflict came to a head in 1981 during the anti-reservation riots when members of higher castes attacked the Harijans, many of whom were members of both TLA and SEWA.
  • SEWA spoke out in defence of the Harijans, whereas TLA remained silent.
  • Because of this outspokenness, TLA threw out SEWA from its fold. After the separation from TLA, SEWA grew even faster and started new initiatives.
  • In particular, the growth of many new co-operatives, a more militant trade union and many supportive services has given SEWA a new shape and direction.

Goals of SEWA:

  • In our experience, poor women growth, development and employment occur when they have work and income security and food security.
  • It also occurs when they are healthy, able to access childcare and have a roof over their heads.
  • In a membership-based organisation, it is the member priorities and needs which necessarily shapes the priorities and direction of the organisation.
  • Hence, it is appropriate that member’s themselves develop their own yardstick for evaluation.
  • The following ten questions have emerged from the members and continually serve as a guide for all members, group leaders, executive committee members and full-time organisers of SEWA.
  • It is also useful for monitoring SEWA progress and the relevance of its various activities and their congruence with members reality and priorities.
  • It also increases the accountability of SEWA leaders and organisers, to their members.

The Eleven Questions of SEWA :

  1. Have more members obtained more employment?
  2. Has their income increased?
  3. Have they obtained food and nutrition?
  4. Has their health been safeguarded?
  5. Have they obtained child-care?
  6.  Are they have obtained or improved their housing?
  7. Have their assets increased? (e.g. their own savings, land, house, work-space, tools or work, licenses, identity cards, cattle and share in cooperatives; and all in their own name.
  8. Has the worker’s organisational strength increased?
  9. Has the worker’s leadership increased?
  10. Have they become self-reliant both collectively and individually?
  11. Have they become literate?


  • The union is open for membership to self-employed women workers all over India.
  • The membership fee is Rs. 5 per year.
  • The members of each trade elect their representatives in the ratio of 1 representative per 100 members.
  • These representatives then form the Trade Council (Pratinidhi Mandal).
  • In addition, and parallel to the Trade Council are Trade Committees(Dhandha Samiti) in each trade.
  • The Trade Committee has no fixed proportion to a number of members but varies between 15 to 50 members.
  • The Trade Committees meet every month and discuss the problems of their trades and possible solutions to them.
  • Trade Council members are members of their respective Trade Committees as well.
  • The organiser of a trade group is the Member Secretary of that group’s Trade Committee.
  • Every three years the Trade Council elects an Executive Committee of 25 members.
  • The representation on the Executive Committee reflects the proportion of the membership.
  • It has become a practice to elect the President from the trade with the largest membership.
  • SEWA members are workers who have no fixed employee-employer relationship and depend on their own labour for survival.
  • They are poor, illiterate and vulnerable.
  • They barely have any assets or working capital. But they are extremely economically active, contributing very significantly to the economy and society with their labour.

There are Four types of self-employed women workers:

  • Hawkers, vendors and small businesswomen like vegetable, fruit, fish, egg and other vendors of food items, household goods and clothes vendors :
  • Home-based workers like weavers, potters, bidi and Agarbatti workers, papad rollers, ready-made garment workers, women who process agricultural products and artisans, and
  • Manual labourers & service providers like agricultural labourers, construction workers, contract labourers, handcart pullers, head – loaders, domestic workers and laundry workers.
    • In addition to these three categories, there is the emergence of another category of women workers.
  • Producers & Services who invest their labour and capital to carry out their businesses.
    • This category includes Agriculture, cattle rearers, salt workers, gum collectors, cooking & vending etc.


  • While the overall trend is upward, there have been periods of fluctuation over the past decade.
  • Membership increases occurred as a result of campaigns which developed into mass movements in some rural districts, concrete gains from organising of some categories of workers like vendors and home-based workers and also because of support during crises.
  • Over the years, the complexion of SEWA’s membership has changed significantly.
  • In 2006, of SEWA’s 4,83,012 strong membership in Gujarat, 60.77% was rural and 39.23% urban.

Concept and History of SEWA

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