Unionisation of women workers in Tamil Nadu

This paper is in three parts. The first part will briefly discuss the structure of employment and women’s participation in work. Second, within this context this will discuss the impact of globalisation and the concerns of women workers. Finally, the last section will discuss the level of unionisation of women workers in my country and the challenges we face.


In a country of 1.2 billion people, the working population constitutes about 397.9 million, of which about 123.9 million are women. According to the Second National Labour Commission Report 2002, of the 124 million women workers, less than 5 million women or 4 percent work in the organised sector. The comparative proportion of men in the organised sector is over 8 percent.

The Majority of the women workers are employed in the unregulated informal sector. Women have an overwhelming presence in agriculture, construction and quarrying, forestry, fishery, plantation, textiles, food processing, home-based and other allied activities. The agriculture sector alone has 200 million workers, 83% of whom are women. Construction and quarrying employ close to 20 million people on a part time and full time basis according to the Tamil Nadu State Construction Workers’ Union.  About 20 percent of workers in construction and quarrying are women.

The number of women workers covered by labour laws in India is nominal as compared to the real numbers of women workers. Agriculture, forestry, construction and quarrying, domestic services, small factory employment and home based industries, in which the highest numbers of women are employed are not covered under any legislation with the exception of the Minimum Wages Act.  The implementation of the Minimum Wages Act is not a priority for department of labour enforcement. Even in factories and big cities violations of minimum wages is the rule. The floor level national minimum wage of Rs.1800 a month (equivalent of 45 dollars a month) is not within the reach of the huge majority of working women.  For instance, in most towns in Tamil Nadu, one of the most economically and technologically advanced states, women construction workers do not get more than Rs.70 a day. Moreover, there is no guarantee of employment, and women would find work for only about 12 to 15 days on an average. In agriculture, the wages are likely to be even lower and employment is likely to be more uncertain and seasonal.


From the 1980s, the government of India has systematically supported privatisation and deregulation and development model regulated through the market.  It has moved away from its earlier ideology of socialist development, planned economy and self-reliant growth. In addition, the government has reduced state spending on water, sanitation, health, education and other social services. Globalisation has therefore affected both employment pattern and security of existence of women in India in many ways. This can be understood in the context of economic changes in both rural and urban areas, in agriculture and industry.


Agriculture has traditionally been the largest employer of women India. Many aspects of Indian agriculture, including planting, weeding and harvesting employed significant number of women. This also provided food security to many rural families. The pattern of agriculture changed drastically and rapidly in the last decade and a half. This also affected employment and living conditions in the rural areas.

In the southern states of India, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu globalisation hastened a shift from traditional farming (paddy and other food grains) to cash crops. This included shift to plantation crops (tea and coffee) in the hill tracts of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and cotton in the plains of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The crash in farm level prices of plantation crops lead to large-scale pauperisation of small farmers. In cotton, repeated crop failure also lead to farmer distress. This was compounded by high investment in cash crop farming, which led to farmers being caught in a debt trap. Farmer suicides have been a common feature of media reports since the turn of the century.

The result has been a dramatic reduction in employment in the farm sector in these affected regions. Plantation wages have fallen in absolute terms in the last decade. Large plantations (companies like Tata and Hindustan Lever) that provided better wages, regulation and welfare measures have reduced active involvement in primary plantation activity. A number of other large and medium size plantations have either followed suit, or forced labour to accept lower wage and welfare levels. The result has been greater impoverishment in absolute terms of very large numbers of families in rural India. The impact has also been extended to other sectors of rural employment in these regions. The impact has been particularly severe on women employees.

Two aspects compounded the impact of downtrend in agriculture. First, the shift from traditional farming drastically affected food security of farm labour families. Second, the Government in the past decade has also been dismantling its vast social security system. This includes the public distribution system (PDS) for supply of basic commodities to the poor at a subsidised cost; Government financed health care and education; and Government expenditure in employment generation schemes. The result is an increased migration of labour from rural India to the cities.

Urban employment

Globalisation has resulted in reduction in employment in the traditional manufacturing sector. The small-scale sector that absorbed the bulk of employment in urban India was affected by the removal of protection and subsidies. Large sections of the small-scale industry in engineering were forced into closure. The traditional textile sector was also faced with closure and reduction of employment.

The new economy has opened employment to women. Ready-made garments in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have seen significant rise in women employment. Women have been employed in significant numbers in the IT enabled services (ITES) of call centres, medical transcription agencies, etc. They have found employment in occupations of municipal cleaning, house keeping, domestic work, entertainment and tourism sector, etc.

Absence of Labour Legislation: An Impediment

One common aspect of employment in the economy is the low level of unionisation. Lack of tenure and absence of regulation make employees in this sector more vulnerable to employer threats of dismissal and closure in the event of unionisation.  This has resulted in low levels of wages and legislative protection.

The unorganised sector is also characterised by extremely low levels of regulation. This is in part due to absence of labour laws and in part due to the inadequacy of legislation which puts the onus of implementation on a small labour department bureaucracy. The laws relating to regulation of employment and conditions of work, social security and welfare are restricted to the small percent of workers employed in the unorganised sector.  In India, most labour laws apply to establishments with a minimum number of 20 workers; therefore small units with workers less than 20 are not covered by labour laws; this provision has been systematically violated to keep even large factories out of the purview of labour laws. After globalisation, the situation has worsened and even factories covered by labour laws have been faced with closure and retrenchment, shifting production to new areas, greater contractualisation and worsening conditions of wages, working conditions and safety, etc.

In this situation, the large numbers of workers and 95 percent of working women are forced to work in situations where the onus of proof of employment is on the individual worker. It is not mandatory for employers to register workers employed by them or to pay minimum wages. Its only when workers through their own agency organise themselves and demand fair wages or working conditions does the issue of non-payment of wages or inadequate wages get registered.  It is a chicken and egg situation, unionisation often results in closures and retrenchment and without unionisation, there can be no improvement in wages and working conditions.

At legislative level and policy level, women workers continue to be discriminated. . Even today, domestic work is not a recognised as work and not brought under the purview of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Equal Remuneration Act and Maternity Benefit Act passed in the 1970s cannot be implemented as workers are unregistered and have no identity as workers.

Further, in many employment’s where largest number of women are employed in manual work such as agriculture, forestry, construction and quarrying, though minimum wages are determined by the government, they are violated by impunity and there is no real mechanism of redress. Government’s and employers take advantage of the vast unemployment in rural area to keep wages depressed.  Another impediment to organising workers is the uncontrolled widespread migration from rural areas to urban areas and forced migration across state/provincial borders through contractors and middlemen, to work on construction sites, food processing units, in domestic labour, etc.  The government of India, enacted a special law the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979. Temporarily rattled, large construction companies went into appeal in the Supreme Court against the law and then having realised that it was very much part of the existing genre of labour legislation, worked around it to ensure it remained as ineffective. It remains a dead piece of law till date and the widespread and unregulated nature of migration across regions and states remains an impediment to unionise workers.

Government Policy and Labour Legislation

The government’s lack of will to enact protective legislation is evident. In 1966, the First National Commission of Labour put the law for agricultural labour as a priority. However, till date the parliament has not enacted a law to regulate and protect agricultural labour, the largest section of working population. Moreover, labour laws passed after independence are not universal and contain restrictive clauses, which bar most workers from its provisions. Trade unions have been demanding change in the structure of legislation, laws that have universal applications, are inclusive and simple to implement. But, a maelficient and rigid labour bureaucracy, that is not accountable to the people, and that has link with big industry and business houses and now with international finance capital has systematically scuttled trade union efforts to bring change.

Government is also reluctant to make new fiscal commitments and budgetary provision for women and existing programs are being diluted. Financial support for institutionalised child care, skill and vocational training, universal free health care, The assault on traditional joint families dwindling family support for their survival.  While government has taken no steps to institutionalising childcare and universalising health insurance, it has and is reluctant to provide employment guarantee, under pressure from employers it has relaxed night work for women, without required safeguards.

Social Welfare Policy and Women Workers

Apart from labour legislation, government economic and social policies affect policy affects women’s control over their family and the family budget in a serious way. In India, over the last 30 years, the liquor trade has moved from manufacture of local brews into a multi-billion-liquor industry. Liquor industry is a major source of state revenues, which is justified as these revenues support government’s social welfare program and development. Nevertheless, seen from the angle of women and women workers, the liquor industry is the bane of their life. A major portion of male earnings going to liquor and fatten pockets of liquor barrens and goes to government exchequer by way of taxes. In different parts of India, women have repeatedly demanded ban on or at least regulation of sale of liquor. However, there has rarely been any serious effort to regulate drinking, and even these have been for very short periods. Consecutive governments at the centre and states have paid lip service to the cause of women.

At the present, our government in response to demand for employment from rural workers has initiated massive  micro-credit schemes and self-help groups (SHGs). This is at the instance of the World Bank. Self-help puts an additional burden on women who have no skills to produce or market and have little access to knowledge and resources.  However, the micro-credit program shifts the onus of unemployment and poverty on the individual women and their communities. Therefore, most progressive women’s groups have resisted building women’s empowerment through SHGs and focussed on campaigning for right to work, guaranteed employment, minimum wages and improvement of skills and education for women.


Trade Union and organising women workers

Women workers joined the workforce in sizeable numbers in formal sectors of employment, particularly in the service sector (banking and finance, secretarial staff in companies, etc.) from the mid-seventies. The greater economic freedom and influence of feminist thought, particularly in urban industrial centres helped women to gain greater voice within their workplace. However, the leadership remained rigidly male dominated. Many women were first generation women workers. Their joining the workforce did not mean their liberation from housework. The pressures on them to return home immediately after work made it very difficult for them to participate in any serious and sustained manner in union activity after work hours.

Despite growth of women’s employment in the formal sector, this growth has remained confined to largely the ‘care economy’ – teachers, nurses, sanitary workers, women and child development project workers, etc and in clerical and housekeeping jobs, that is the lowest rung in the ladder. Even today, only 17 per cent of government employees are women and the figure for permanent workers in private industry is lower. In fact, most women workers are treated as para-government employees or are on contract are kept temporary and not given the status of government staff. In this situation, it is not surprising that women have a low participation in trade unions, even in the formal sector.

Moreover, women workers have not only the responsibilities of wage-work; they carry burden of the household and have to perform childbearing functions. In recent years with some exceptions, trade unions have restricted their battles to workplace issues, rarely considering the enormous burden the State in conjunction with capital place on working-class women. The failures of trade union politics outside the work-place has restricted the role trade unions can play in negotiating with the governments on improving the economic and social lives of the working class; issues which have received marginal concern in the mainstream trade union movement need to receive greater attention – housing, health, education, unemployment benefits, social security legislation, reproductive rights of women, transport, etc.

The trade union movement in the country is much stronger and more entrenched in the organised sector. This relative difference is reflected in the issues that the Indian trade union movement has prioritised historically.  This is reflected in the organisation of workers in the informal sector. Two aspects are of particular importance. First, unions in these sectors have a large proportion of external leadership. This external leadership, often deputed from the large federations or from NGOs, is largely male. Second, in many instances union structures follow skill and economic hierarchies within the working class. Thus in the construction industry, internal leadership are largely from among the skilled workforce, who are almost all men. Third, union leadership also mirrored the caste and patriarchal structures within the family and local community. Therefore women have largely been outside the purview of trade unions, or been silent members in unions. This has affected their bargaining strength with respect to capital and the state.

How do women workers perceive themselves?

Unrecognised and under valued: struggling for an identity

When we meet women in their houses or work place, they rarely identify themselves as workers. Their identities are either as wives, daughters or mothers. It is also common for most women from communities that are engaged traditionally in manual work, to identify themselves as doing ‘coolie work’. Unionisation in the informal sector and in particular among women workers begins as a process of making the worker conscious of her role in society and her importance in contributing to and sustaining the economy.  Traditional outlook that women should not work outside the home and non-working women are superior acts as a hindrance to organisation of women.

Women’s work has not been recognised as productive. It is something that is done to sustain the family, community and that which is taken for granted. It has therefore been attached no value. Housework as is well known is not included in calculating national income. In the 1985 World Conference at Nairobi, women’s unwaged work became an issue. In 1988, Planning Commission came out with the ‘Shram Shakti’, a report on self-employed women and women in the informal sector that documented women’s waged employment in India. Moreover, because of the influence of the women’s movement, the 1991 census in India made an attempt to document women’s unwaged and waged work. Through some of these efforts, woman’s work did start to get recognition in our country.

The lack of a community support structure in urban situations, and the changing employment patterns has also resulted in new forms of problems faced by women. A number of women are sole breadwinners in their families. Many are in single parent situations, with the family burden on them, because of either desertion or early mortality of their husbands. The economic responsibility does not by itself bring a greater degree of space to the women in determining their lives. Both at the community level and in the workplace women continue to deal with inequality and discrimination in wages and attendant benefits and access to government programs.

Impact of Globalisation on community and the family

Globalisation has also changed the nature of the traditional working-class family. With greater casualisation of work and lower wages, with larger numbers of families requiring a second income, the male breadwinner family model has given way to working woman family model. The model of the tenured worker earning an adequate for the family has changed. The search of capital is ever for greater flexibility of labour, and lower labour costs.  It is for a more ‘docile’ workforce, with less potential to resist. The state aids the process by withdrawing from playing a regulatory role between capital and labour. What this has resulted in, in many sectors of industry like garments, clerical employment, telecom services, etc., is the progressive ‘feminisation’ of the labour force. Wage levels and skill requirement are pushed down. Employment regulations are practically non-existent.

The gradual privatisation of health, education and transport without extending institutionalised social security measures for the unsecured and unregulated sector, the vast numbers of women workers are virtually left to market forces and their own resources.  Economic liberalisation has put pressure on the old, very young and women. This has meant that women workers have poorer levels of nutrition, inappropriate and costly health care and are without traditional support structures.

For the trade unions, there is a genuine dilemma in welcoming women’s employment in low paid, semi-skilled, and unskilled work. Many women do not see themselves as permanent workers in the industry; most of them see themselves as transient workers, till they get married. The young women have fewer social responsibilities and families regard them as dispensable to their social life. It is therefore ambivalent that this low waged employment actually increases the woman’s bargaining power in the family. Their attitude towards unionisation is also ambivalent, given their ambivalence towards a worker identity. A lot of women do return after their babies are born and leave them with an older relative. They are then much more vulnerable to threats of job loss.

Traditional community structures and resources are being worn out by systematic inroads into old spaces of economic life by global corporations (in adivasi belts – mining and quarrying, building of large dams, commercialisation of agriculture, etc). Indiscriminate and mindless use of modern technology has have drastically altered community life and social structures and added to women’s woes.  The assault on lives and livelihoods of women belies the hope that the women displaced by global and national corporations will be ’empowered’. The young women of these communities are forced to survive by migrating to metropolitan cities for work as domestic help, work in garment factories, food processing units, etc and live in hovels and shacks in most unhygienic conditions.

Women’s empowerment: choices or conflicts

The entry of women in production does not mean unambivalent ’empowerment’. The support by the state to women as workers is nominal, or even negative. The government has not established norms of employment, and is in fact considering doing away with the minimum protection of night work for women. The government under pressure from industry is indulging in double speak – permitting hire and fire policies, overturning gains made by old trade unions through long struggle, accepting the need for labour flexibility and in the same time enacting laws for ‘social security’ for unorganised labour. In truth, the government is doing nothing to regulate working conditions, implementing minimum wages, providing child care facilities and housing for women workers. When industries ‘rationalise’ their workforce, women loose their jobs first. New technologies such as in electronic and garment industries involve piece rate work, impossible production targets and long working hours. There is no concern for the woman worker, who is merely an adjunct to the machine. Productivity, global supply chains and intense competition has forced wages down to the minimum and this is has its impact on the health of a whole generation of workers.

Organising women workers

The foregoing lays the context for unionising among women workers. There are a number of specific problems relating to their organisation. Women workers are normally in less paying, less regulated employment. They are often forced to have an ambivalent attitude towards their identity as workers. Despite their contributing economically to the family earnings, their freedom to conduct their lives is restricted. Older women are faced with much greater degrees of responsibility towards the home. The women face much greater restrictions than men on their ability to create time outside the workday do. Their special responsibility as homemakers makes their lives much more community focussed. All these constitute special requirements for unionising women.

Traditional trade unions often ignore these problems of women workers. The traditional form of unionising requires the activist to spend time away from home and the community. Much of the union activity is after the workday is over. The public dealings of the union are mostly in a world governed by women. As such, the preference for leadership in unions automatically goes to men. Men are also privileged by the fact that traditionally the union has been a male preserve.

A women’s union faces a challenge on many levels and on many issues. The question is whether traditional women’s organisations as also the trade unions are in a position to recognise the need the woman worker has to assert her identity. This identity is complex, encompassing both the workplace and the community. It includes the woman as worker, as homemaker, and as one breaking from the bonds of tradition. While trade unions see her need to fight for her economic betterment, they usually ignore her social responsibilities, and condition.

In society and to a lesser extent within trade unions, working women’s contribution to work and workplace organisation has been under-estimated. Unfortunately, working class men have no way of seeing women and women’s empowerment in ways different from lawmakers, media or other structures which control the lives of women.  The requirement is then for a new form of organising for women as workers. This is particularly true when dealing with women in the low paid, ‘unorganised’ sectors of employment. The issues dealt with, the ambit of trade union activities, the style of union functioning, have all to be very different.

Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam

Its in this context that about six years ago a group of women trade union activists and women workers started the Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam in Chennai. The union draws its membership mainly from women labour in construction and quarrying, in domestic services and garments and tailoring, these being the three largest sectors employing women workers in Chennai.  The union organises in residential areas. A minimum of 25 women workers collectively constitutes a branch union. Each woman pays the union an annual subscription and undergoes with her branch members a two-day training program on  “what it means to be a worker and what are their rights under various enactments”.  The branch union elects its president and secretary who attend the monthly meetings of the central union. Once a year there is an election at the branch level and at the state level, elections are held once in two years. Today the PTS has a membership of close to 2500 in about 20 branches in and around Chennai.

Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam takes up the immediate issues of non-payment of wages, working conditions, safety and accidents at the work place. The union also helps to strengthen community structures, by starting crèches in the areas, setting up thrift groups and having a support group for women on issues of family violence and crisis.  PTS hold regular meeting to educate their membership on social issues that strengthen them in their families, help them to make personal decisions and deal with family violence. For instance in May-June 2005, we held a series of meeting to discuss the laws relating to marriage, divorce and alimony; also discussed were the problems of early marriage and its attendant health problems.

However, PTS’ focus is on legislative protection and social security for all workers. Today in my state, Tamil Nadu, because of continuous agitation and struggle by independent workers organisations, led by the TN State Construction Workers’ Union the government conceded to setting up the Unorganised Workers’ Welfare Board. This Board assures all registered workers with accident compensation, relief in case of natural death, allowances for education of two children, marriage allowance for two children of the registered worker, a maternity benefit for two deliveries, etc. These token concessions have given hope to informal workers. Most importantly, the registration on the Labour Welfare Board has given women workers an identity as workers. Moreover, workers now realise that this is not charity to the poor, but their rights to workers; therefore, the union’s struggle and agitations have acquired a new meaning and new strength.

The Women Workers’ Union also campaigns on setting minimum wages on the basis of needs and linked to price index. Today, in TN which is one of the more advanced states in the country, wages of women workers range from 20 dollars to about a maximum of 75 dollars a month. Today PTS is demanding that the government determine a floor level wage of Rs. 3200 or about 80 dollars a month to enable a women worker to live in dignity.

For single women, women headed families this is an abysmally low amount. Given the skyrocketing rents and impossible dream of owning a house in the city, PTS demands that the government makes special provision for women headed families in the states housing budget.   The Union has struggled against privatisation of government run hospitals for women, and demanded better health care facilities. In fact, the union liases with government hospitals to get better treatment for its members.

The PTS sees itself as an organisation within the larger left democratic trade union movement, an organisation which champions the rights of women through women’s power.  It aims to build the strength of women, who are over burdened by social and economic responsibilities, in the face of a government that is gradually abdicating its responsibilities. The PTS is working within the framework of the Constitution of India, to give women equal opportunities and rights; and work towards a life of dignity, self-respect and a better-secured future for women and their families.

March 2006