Guest article: work

Work and dignity

When women have work, they can invest in the next generation, says lawyer Ela Bhatt from India.

Text: 
Ela Bhatt

Ela Bhatt

Decent work and productive employment are key pathways to reducing hunger and violence and to bringing peace to the world. However, most working poor in developing countries, especially women, are engaged in the informal economy which is associated with low average earnings and high risks. The informal workforce lacks economic opportunities, legal rights, social protection, organised strength plus the right of representation. In short, these working poor women remain invisible, voiceless and undervalued. Furthermore, they are often stigmatised, penalised and even criminalised for what they do to earn an honest living.

But in my experience, women are the key to building a nation. If women are at the centre, their productive work is the thread that weaves a society together. When they have work, they can build assets that can reduce their vulnerability. They can invest in the next generation. Life is no longer just about survival, but about investing in a better future. Work builds peace, because work gives people roots, it builds communities and it gives meaning and dignity to one’s life.

Access to financial and technological services

By work I do not mean factory jobs, but rather sweatshops and cheap labour that turn a person into a slave through yet another kind of exploitation. By work, I mean the production of food, clothing and housing, including with access to water. I mean the upgrading of existing and traditional skills that people have possessed for thousands of years – agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, textile weaving, house building. This work feeds people and it restores the relationship with the self, with fellow human beings, with the earth and the environment, and with the great spirit that created us all.

We can help local producers build links to mainstream markets. We can help them find access to financial and technological services. We can ensure that their voice, especially that of the working poor, is heard at the policy-making level. Political freedom is incomplete without economic freedom. It is not until people have both that we will get lasting peace.

Tradition combined with contemporary marketing strategies

Let me end by citing Puriben Ahir. She is a woman who lives in the dry, desert village of Madhutra and has done many types of hard manual labour, from agriculture to breaking stones, digging mud and looking after cattle. She is also a skilled embroiderer. Her handcraft work, rooted in local culture and social relations, has been combined with contemporary marketing strategies, and in that way has become part of her livelihood. Today she says: ‘I feel proud whenever I work. It shows my skill, it makes me self-reliant, it increases my status, and I know I am contributing to my family and society. To me embroidery is happiness and work combined.’

Puriben Ahir’s example shows: There is potential for alternative and holistic forms of work, for decent and productive work, and for peaceful societies, but we have to actively pursue that path.

Ela Bhatt is an Indian lawyer and activist. In 1972, she founded the Self Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA). Although India has almost 20,000 trade unions, most workers are not organised; as a consequence, they do not earn fixed wages. There is a strong informal economy, generating an estimated 60 per cent of GDP, 40 per cent of exports and most of the country’s jobs.

published in akzente 2/16

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