The Strength of Collectives

Champaben works as a care giver for 80 year old Minalba who has limited mobility and is homebound. She has been working with Minalba for several years now, and travels the 8 km daily from her house in Chamapura to Minalba’s house in the western part of the city. In the 10 hours that she is with Minalba, she helps her bathe, do her exercises and cooks the light and nutritious meals that ba eats. Over the years, she has become Ba’s trusted companion.

On the night of March 24, when Champaben was sitting down to dinner after returning from work, she learned that a national lockdown had been declared due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. No public transport was going to ply, which meant that the bus that Champaben took to Minalben’s house would not be available. Her first concern was, how would Minalba’s manage without her? She immediately got on the phone with Minalba’s daughter, who told her that given the circumstances she would make some arrangements for her mother.

Champaben has been a member of SEWA’s Homecare Cooperative for the last 12 years. At the beginning of each month, her salary (from her work with Minalba) is deposited in her bank account. Champaben is the primary earner in her family and her monthly income is critical to keep the house running. Her other concern was, is she did not go to work at Minalba’s for the remainder of the month, would her salary be deducted. Also, what about the following month?

Just then she got a call from Kamlaben, who is a member of Saundarya, another cooperative promoted by SEWA. Saundarya provides cleaning services to various offices in the city. Kamlaben needed her salary to buy groceries for her house. She understood that the offices where she went for cleaning would also be closed, but would her salary get affected? Kamlaben had heard from her neighbors who worked as domestic workers in private homes that their salaries may be deducted if they were unable to go for the rest of the month. Also, they could not go out and get their salaries as all transportation had stopped. They were strapped for funds to run their homes.

This is where the benefit of the collective, in this case the cooperatives (and federation of cooperatives) came to the fore. The members of both the Homecare Cooperative and Saundarya Cooperative were assured that they would get their full salaries for the month. Not only that, the Homecare Cooperative made an early payment to its members for the month of March. The cooperative managers realized that in several homes the men folk, who were daily wage workers, auto-rickshaw drivers, etc. had lost their income too. Now, more than ever, the cooperative members’ incomes were required to run the house. Saundarya Cooperative sent online bills to the institutions where they provided cleaning services. In the meanwhile, they paid their members from the cooperative’s funds so that the members would not face a financial crunch.

 “All my neighbours said how fortunate I was that the Cooperative had ensured that I got my salary for March, which was directly deposited into my bank account. My neighbours who work as domestic workers are forced to stay at home and are unable to get even partial salaries from the different homes in which they work. They say that they too want to join the cooperative because they see how supportive the cooperative has been.”

Sarojben, Homecare worker

SEWA Federation also followed up with all the employers of these cooperatives to make sure that the salaries due for April would also be paid even though the employees could not report for work.  

The cooperative also keeps in touch with all the members regularly, to make sure that all is well with them and tells them that they should contact their supervisors immediately if they need any support.

In Saundarya Cooperative we have one supervisor for 15-20 members. The supervisors regularly phone the members and keep in touch with them to know if they need any support from the Cooperative. Our members feel very reassured that they are not alone, that there is the cooperative which is looking after their needs and problems.”  

Manjulaben, Chairperson, Saundarya Cooperative

The cooperative members not only feel secure about their incomes and work, they are also able to help others in their neighbourhood in these difficult times. Over the years, as members of the SEWA collectives, they have developed confidence and self-esteem and have become empowered. SEWA Federation realized that there were several non-members who would be in need of basic rations during the lockdown.

The SEWA Federation has given us kits with grains, sugar and tea to distribute to the weaker households in our neighbourhood, even if they are not SEWA members. Many of these households are women-headed or have seniors living alone.”

Bhartiben, Homecare Manager

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