Sebastian Devaraj is one of FEDINA’s co-ordinator and is particularly in charge of the unionization programe of the network. From public meetings to pamphlet distribution, the unions are getting always stronger and the public is getting aware of their existence. Nevertheless, unionization is a society challenge that needs to be constantly supported if any changes are to be observed in our indian society, and especially in the unorganized sector: Sebastian explains to us the how and the why.
1/ Namaste Sebastian, could you tell us which kinds of workers are concerned by FEDINA’s action through unions ?
Sebastian Devaraj : FEDINA is mainly working with unorganized sector workers. In fact, we work in various areas of the informal sector with various publics, specifically with agricultural workers, construction workers, domestic workers, quarry workers, sanitation workers, beedis workers, garment workers, agarbathi workers, gem cutting workers and hamalis. But keep in mind that all these workers are being exploited and oppressed by their employers and see theirs basic working rights being denied.
2/ What do unionization and collective bargaining – being promoted by FEDINA – have to do with the core labour rights all the social groups of the network decided to focus on ?
S.D. : The core labour rights deal with the base of improvement of working conditions in terms of wages, dignity, social security and so on. It is a protection provided by the International Labour Organization conventions India ratified. Unions are obvisouly based upon these core labour rights but we want to claim much more that the basics here. Unless you get people together you won’t get any improvement : unionization is a major activity, all other actions can be ensured if you have got collective strength.
We have been able to give the workers some courage and some benefits while pressuring but we were not able to negotiate a collective agreement yet. The concept of collective bargaining is still not reached properly and that’s why the unions can be defined as pressure groups for now. The employers need to recognize the union as a force, not a simple group of vulnerable and weak workers.
3/ How is the unionization process essential for you and how can it be implemented and diffused ?
S.D. : Unionization process is essential because if any change has to be brought about, if you want to get some responses from employers, government departments and so on; then you need to have a functionning union to be respected.That is why you need to bring together many sectors and develop intersectoral unions thanks to small unions coming together. Scattered persons can not get what they want, need and in order to tackle centralized policies you need a union.
Furthermore, industry is well linked even though it appears to be informal in many places.
For instance, let’s take the agarbathi sector :
it is an home-based activity and for the workers it looks like one small contractor.
But when you bring the workers together, then they realize the whole industry is massive and they are linked to a far larger chain. Thanks to the union, workers see beyond their immediate sight and can act on a larger scale.
4/ In what aspects do workers benefit from the unions and what are their limits ?
S.D. : Currently, with the unions as they are, we work mainly on grievance like wages not being paid: we do intervene and try to resolve issues. In the meantime, we include some trainings in order to give knowledge of the Law. By becoming aware of law and its provisions, many workers stop thinking wathever their employer is doing as right and stop submitting by questionning … Being aware is the first step !
Then, as part of a larger network, we try to deal with more important issues as demanding for passing of laws, improving delivery of information, and so on.
5/ How do you perceive the unions of tomorrow ?
S.R. : Up to today, FEDINA is already supporting 40 unions. The agricultural sector counts the largest number of workers and has therefore the largest union. For the future, we will work on the strengthening of the federation, we are currently trying to federate all the unions all together but it is not very effective yet: we need to reinforce that process.
Another thing is the evolution’s environement of our unions, which is shared among 3 levels : at state level, at sectoral level and at the interstate level (south India). We will focus our efforts on the last two, the sectoral and interstate levels in order to get larger, wider organisations able to fight and put pressure onto the employers as well as introducing fear in the working environement, and all for workers’benefits.