This piece is part of Apolitical’s spotlight series on the care economy, in partnership with the Wilson Center. It also appears in our public health newsfeed.
In 1971, the wives of textile workers in Ahmedabad, Western India, became the main earners in their families overnight, after several large textile mills closed down.
They were part of the 94% of India’s female labour force working in the informal sector — recycling waste, embroidering fabric and selling vegetables. As a result, they remained largely invisible to the government and to formal labour unions.
In response, Ela Bhatt, a young lawyer, held a meeting with 100 of the women in a public park. They established the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which would later register as a trade union and swell to the two million members it boasts today.
The Union’s main goals involved organising workers once deemed “impossible to organise” and fighting for better working conditions. But one of the main achievements of SEWA over the past forty years has been the creation of a network of creches providing childcare for its members.
This grassroots initiative is affordable and flexible, community led and controlled by members. It also offers skills training and other opportunities, and insists on decent wages and protections for full time employees.
The informal economy is still far smaller in places like Europe (25%) than in India (81%). However, where workers face precarious conditions, governments will need to put affordable, flexible childcare at the forefront of their plans for social security. Laura Alfers, who heads the childcare campaign at Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO), said that the SEWA model, with its cooperative structure, can “teach governments a lot about inclusion and the importance of community participation in childcare”.
A childcare solution for informal workers
One of the main barriers to gender equality in the labour market is the lack of childcare services — UN Women notes that across 31 countries in the Global South, less than 1% of women living in poverty have access to childcare services.
Research from WIEGO highlights how without access to maternity entitlements and quality childcare, women in the informal economy take up more insecure work. Since the 90s, organisations like UNICEF, the ILO and the World Bank have identified childcare as a crucial priority for policymakers thinking about gender and the future of work.
However, by listening to the concerns of its members, SEWA identified this barrier long before. The union established the Sangini Child Care Cooperative in Ahmedabad in 1986. It has since grown and is now responsible for 13 centres each caring for 130-400 children.
The Cooperative has emphasised a community and parent-led approach. Members of the local community who are underemployed and keen to gain new skills are offered free training courses to become a Bal Sevika (childcare worker). Decent working conditions for these Bal Sevikas are a priority and all the centres offer a living wage and access to social protection.
Affordability and flexibility have been crucial to the success of the centers. The creches are run according to the timings of mothers’ working hours. For example, in places where mothers are vegetable vendors, the creches open early to help increase working hours and enhance household income.
Women interact differently with the centres depending on their profession. Street vendors will usually need to leave their children in the centre the whole day, while agricultural workers who may work nearer to the centre will come in during the day to breastfeed.
As a result, 64% of working mothers have been able to increase their number of working days due to support from the childcare centre. They have reported an increase in their incomes ranging from Rs. 500 to 1,000 ($8 to $17) per month.
“When parents have a say, they trust that their children will be well cared for”
Laileshbai Kishora moved to Ahmedabad to earn money as a domestic worker. However, taking on paid care responsibilities for elderly employers — from helping them bathe to serving food — made it hard to find the time or energy to care for her own children.
Laileshbai therefore joined SEWA so that she could enrol her youngest son in the local childcare centre and complete her work knowing that he was being cared for while being prepared for school. This also meant that her older children could go to school rather than staying at home to look after their siblings.
The mothers of the children who attend the centres and the facilitators who run them are also shareholders and manage the cooperative. According to an assessment by the ILO, a democratic and transparent governance system is a key component to ensuring the quality of the childcare provided.
Alfers explained that “when parents have a say in the management of the centres, they trust that their children will be well cared for and promote the cooperative within their community”. Every three months meetings are also held with fathers, encouraging them to engage more in their wellbeing of their children and the running of the cooperative.
S. Anandalakshmy, a childcare development specialist and author based in Chennai, has also observed that support from other bodies under the SEWA umbrella, such as its health cooperative which provides access to affordable medicine and medical facilities, is crucial to its survival.
Shaping policy from below
Since the 80s, SEWA has worked in partnership with the government on a local level helping them to better adapt to and meet female informal workers’ needs.
In 1975, the Indian government had piloted and launched its own Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) to provide nutrition and childcare services to children from birth to six years old and breastfeeding mothers. However, there are concerns about the quality and reach of the services. They only cover about 26% of India’s children aged zero to six years.
SEWA staff provide training in child development, nutrition and basic pre-school education methods for government care workers as well as acting as a promoter for ICDS services. They use their networks in low-income communities to expand access to free health and care services to slum-dwelling children who usually fall through the net.
Their long-term vision is for municipally run centres to develop the same quality as exists in SEWA centres and to be proactive in building trust with parents.
SEWA is also part of the Forum for Creche and Childcare Services (FORCES), which brings together over 450 children’s rights, womens’ rights and workers’ rights organisations in India. FORCES members at state and national levels have successfully campaigned for improvements to the ICDS system. In Delhi, for example they organised a survey of working mothers in 28 different slums highlighting the need for longer hours in the ICDS
In 2015, they received 15,000 signatures of support calling on the Delhi government to provide creches open for long hours and pushed the media to highlight childcare in the lead-up to the state elections. In response, the Women and Child Development Government Department committed to building 300 public creches in Delhi’s slums. FORCES has also encouraged the government to include childcare services in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
Childcare cooperatives around the world
SEWA and FORCES are part of a global campaign, supported by WIEGO, for quality public childcare for all workers, including informal economy workers. Alfers says that “if we’re serious about improving the incomes of women informal workers, we have to consider social policies which challenge the gendered structural barriers which reinforce women’s economic inequality.”
“As more high income countries see the demise of good jobs and the rise of precarious employment, there is an urgent demand for childcare solutions”
There are other cases where childcare cooperatives have worked successfully in partnership with local or national authorities. In Brazil, for example, a shift towards participatory budgeting offered a crucial opportunity for the Asmare Waste Pickers Cooperative.
Members of the cooperative identified their need for quality childcare services so that they could work a full day and not have to take their children with them to recycling plants. They presented their demand for childcare at the local assembly. A budget as well as a public building from the municipality were allocated to the initiative.
Similar models are emerging in countries like the US and the UK and have been championed by the ILO. Lucie Stephens, head of co-production at the New Economics Foundation (where this writer also works), is developing the UK’s first parent-led childcare enterprise for low-income families in a council estate in Deptford, South London.
While the SEWA childcare centres provide services to members of the union who are all of a similar demographic, cooperative childcare models in cities like London offer an opportunity to encourage social integration.
Stephens emphasizes how this flexible, affordable model enables families from different socioeconomic groups and ethnic background to work together. Studies have shown that this improves outcomes for young children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Knowing from where and how to access financing is still a major barrier to these initiatives if there is no support from local authorities.
However, as more high income countries see the demise of good jobs and the rise of precarious employment, there is an urgent demand for childcare solutions. The SEWA childcare cooperative — adapting childcare to female informal workers’ needs — could offer a blueprint for policymakers around the world. — Miranda Hall
(Picture Credit: Flickr/ILO)