This profile is dedicated to the memory of Nitin More, founder of LEARN Mahila Kamgar Sangathana. It is his passion, integrity, and vision that have changed how thousands of women think not what they cannot do, but of what they can, and the contribution they will each make to society. We celebrate his life with respect and admiration.Through a unique women worker s union Nitin More is collectivizing women working in the informal sector, especially as home-based workers, domestic workers, street vendors, small and micro factory workers and enhancing their bargaining power with state agencies, the market, and discriminating social structures. Once their basic needs are met, Nitin is helping them to set up a private company that will ensure sustainable econmic and social security.
The New Idea
The growing focus of citizen organisations (COs) as well as the government on the issues plaguing informal sector workers has bypassed the more than 30 million home-based workers in the country, the majority of who are women. Nitin set up LEARN Mahila Kamgar Sangathana (LEARN Women Workers Union), an organizational platform run and managed by the women themselves. The union is focused on basic social security needs such as sustainable livelihoods, fair wages, health, citizenship, and access to food and fuel. The women union members are now leveraging their identity as members of LEARN to negotiate with employers and public officials such as the police and state. Nitin has based his work in Mumbais Dharavi, Asia s largest slum, which reportedly has an annual turnover of over US$500M but is also home to people who are both economically and socially marginalized. Thousands of women here are engaged in home-based work, in microenterprises or employed as domestic help. With no earlier efforts made to unionize them, LEARN has been set up as an apolitical organization, which enables the women to identify themselves for the first time as workers, rather than according to gender, caste, religion, or social status. LEARN now has a growing membership of more than 3,700 women with a target of 30,000 women in Dharavi alone. Finally, Nitin and LEARN are working to create a private limited company in an effort to reorganize the microenterprises of Dharavi to operate more favorably for the women. He is bringing together key aspects of a cooperative and a private firm to form a company for services and production activities that the women currently engage in, ultimately bypassing exploitative wages and working conditions. This company will be owned by the workers. Apart from this, LEARN also manages a womens support center that deals with family problems such as domestic violence and a health center. An offshoot of the trade union is a young girlsgroup called Grand Group, comprising the daughters of women members. Other plans coming up include a housing initiative for the members.
There has been an increasing informalization of the labor force in developing countries over the past few decades as well as a feminization of the work force. One aspect of this dual phenomenon is the growth of outsourced and subcontracted home-based work, a sub-set of informal labor, in both manufacturing as well as services, and to some extent in agriculture. The term home-based worker has been used by organizations in Asia to cover a range of people, mainly women, who work at home regardless of their exact conditions of employment. Home-based work has a dual and contradictory character: On the one hand, as a source of income diversification for poor workers and the emergence of microenterprises, and on the other, the source of exploitation of vulnerable workers as established businesses attempt to contain costs by outsourcing their work. While the social protection of these workers is a matter of concern, it is also argued that such work is going to increase as a possible new labor-intensive growth strategy in developing countries. However, there has been very little analysis or even acknowledgement of the identity of home-based workers as economic contributors to family and national incomes. In addition, there is scant effort made, and almost no data, to distinguish children from adults in home-based work, to understand the impact of this type of work on womens lives and health, and on children s health and schooling. In India, the 55th Round of the National Sample Survey (July 1999 to June 2000), which was the first-ever nationwide survey on informal sector non-agricultural enterprises, showed that the total number of informal workers in non-agricultural enterprises was 79.7 million, of which 30 million were home-based, with the majority being women. The bulk of women home-based workers live and work in survival conditions on the margin doing a variety of jobs for industry and trade, which range from sewing garments and assembling electronic components, to simple jobs of sorting, packaging, and labeling goods. As a workforce, they are largely invisible. With the growing globalization and decentralization of production, home-based work has emerged as the final link in a global chain of outsourcing and subcontractors encompassing a wide-range of industries and services. In today s international marketplace, it is not uncommon for a single garment or electronic device to be a compilation of the efforts of workers on two or three continents, most of whom are not even aware of each other s existence. So, while home-based work in both developing and developed countries (including Europe and North America) may be considered informal by most economists, in the sense that workers are outside the protection of the law and their work is often not valued appropriately, most of the products they produce are sold by large, mainstream retailers. Responding to increasing international competition, business houses use home-workers to outsource production and minimize risk in order to cut costs. Minimizing the risk of unionization, circumventing safety nets, labor rights, and safety in the workplace all help employers to save costs such as rent, power, water, tools and so on, as well as in training and compensation. The isolation and lack of information of home-workers is compounded by the fact that part of the businesses entrepreneurial risk is passed to home-based workers. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), homework is women s work almost by definition, so it is not surprising that it is often wrongly confused with housework or domestic work. The invisibility of home-based workers is directly related to the traditional isolation of women within many societies that restricts their interactions with other women outside of their families or immediate communities. It is not surprising that many of these women, when surveyed, refer to themselves as not employed or as housewives even when they spend 14 to 16 hours per day earning an income to support their families. They carry out their tasks with minimal contact with the outside world, often having little understanding of where the work comes from or where it goes once it leaves their hands. When the Self-Employed Women s Association in Ahmedabad, India first began surveying women home-based workers, across every trade, women told them that what they needed was more work. Yet these same women were already laboring as much as 16 hours per day, often having to carry their children with them while they worked. Because they could not perceive themselves as having the ability to negotiate better working conditions, the only solution they could see to their poverty was to have more work. This worldview plays right into the hands of the contractors and middlemen who exploit their vulnerability to benefit themselves and the industries that employ them. Therefore, it is not surprising that one of the first steps in bringing such women out of the shadows is to help them internalize the concept that they are in fact workersto the same, or sometimes to a greater extent, than their fathers, husbands, and sons. It is almost universally true that in all economies the earnings of home-based workers are lower than other workers, and often less than the minimum wage. In a study done by the Self-Employed Workers Association Academy in India, it was found that 85 percent of the workers sampled in 14 trades were earning 50 percent below the official poverty rate.While the activity is an important source of income for home-based worker households, its unrecognized, unorganized status has contributed to the poor conditions of work and related health issues, the low rates of pay (which often keep the households close to the poverty-line), and the vulnerability of the households, especially if home-based work is the main source of income. Furthermore, home-based workers are invisible, non-unionized and the lack of collective action can make them vulnerable, completely lacking social protection.The exploitation of the home-based workers by local employers is just a first step in exploitation through the global value chain. Home-based workers have low market access and lack contact with the final consumer. Children are often engaged in such activities in order to generate additional income for the household.For example, in Mumbai where Nitin works, the majority of women are from socially and economically marginalized communities, engaged in embroidery, flower-garland making, and garment-factory-related outsourced work like cutting threads, button sewing, or packing. Their daily income is between Rs. 10 to Rs. 50 (less than US$1/day). Most of them live in rented rooms in the slums and have no access to even basic social protection such as a ration card (i.e. a card for people to get food grains and kerosene [their primary cooking fuel] at a subsidized rate through state appointed distribution agencies/shops]. They live in a constant state of uncertainty because they do not have job security or permanent housing. Though such a large number of women exist as informal sector workers, there have been no efforts in Mumbai to organize them into a trade union or an organization.Moreover, traditional trade unions organize workers based on a particular sector or profession. They focus on only the employer-employee relationship and the issues peculiar to that sector. These unions are often unable to improve workers daily lives and deal with broader concerns of urban poverty including citizenship, food, health, and housing. Further, women working in the informal sector are prone to changing jobs, thus making organizing based on sector/profession ineffective. Thus, home-based workers have an ambiguous legal status and are not treated as employees. They are not seen as workers, but as housewives doing something in their spare time. They have no employment rights and no social security protection for when they are ill, lose their work, or are too old to work.
Having observed the failure of efforts to make sustainable changes in the lives of poor women workers, Nitin realized that in order to alleviate the conditions of women home-based workers, the ownership of the union had to be in their hands. He therefore launched LEARN Women Worker s Union in 2004 and worked relentlessly for three years to set up the union with women who were divided along class, caste, and religious lines. The lack of exposure to such activities and illiteracy made the task that much more difficult.The first step was to organize them, help them establish their identity as workers, and generate ownership among the women. The change in both personal and group identity gave women a new ability and legal standing to then approach government agencies collectively. Basic social security needs like ration cards, which are extremely difficult for the urban poor to acquire due to a of lack proper identification documents, was addressed first. This was a challenging process that drew on Nitin s understanding of the interlocking and contradictory needs of the women and their slum landlords. Besides working on ration cards, the union has created two centers, one for gender-based issues such as domestic violence and a medical support center for personal and family health issues. These centers are supported by the member s fees, which help get individuals access to legal counsel or medical facilities.Operating from his insight that work with the very poor can proceed only at a pace their lives over-filled with the activities that basic survival can sustain Nitin has ensured that the meetings are held during times that are not in conflict with their domestic and professional responsibilities. The union meets where the women live and the subgroups are organized by geographical proximity to make it easier for them to meet regularly.Besides social security needs, the union has five departments that address the different professions the women engage in: The Garment Workers department, the Home-Based Workers department, Street Vendors department, Mess(canteen) Workers Union; and the Domestic Workers department. Finally, they have a skills and training cell to help women increase their expertise in their profession and ultimately their market value.Nitin is now getting ready to launch a private limited company, which will be headed, managed, and owned by the members of the organization. Now that the women have taken over the management of the organization and begun the process of skills development and training, Nitin is confident that with more training they will be able to manage the business. The company will be under the union with the women possessing equity stake in the company. The company will move the women up in the value chain by allowing them to interface directly with clients instead of contractors. It will also create a long-term investment vehicle that supports the union, which in turn will look after their social security.Along with this, Nitin is trying to organize the microenterprises and small factories that exist in Dharavi, numbering about 450, which are not covered by any kind of legislation. Recognizing the fact that the problems of microenterpreneurs who engage a number of home-based workers are not much different, Nitin is initiating them to labor laws and security issues, thus making them partners in LEARN, rather than adversaries in their role as employers.Working with the self-help group federated model, Nitin has organized 74+ groups, all of whom are members of the union. He is poised to start credit and savings activities, which in turn will allow the groups themselves to finance the company through a loan from the Small Industries Development Bank of India. Nitin has also formed a network of 16 organizations working with women in Maharashtra and is lobbying the government to secure below-poverty-line (BPL) status for these women. This will entitle them to access the various social security and livelihoods schemes that the government has for the BPL category. However, Nitin s larger role is to lobby the government for a national home-based workers policy. In collaboration with the ILO, Nitin is studying conditions in seven Indian cities to expand the initiative and customize it according to the needs of the home-based workers in these areas. LEARN is working to expand the membership of the union across Mumbai s other slums while also working in two other key cities, Nashik and Solapur, in the state of Maharashtra, with the vision to ultimately take it to other urban areas of India.
Nitin grew up in Parel, which was the textile hub of Mumbai where his father was employed. A major textile strike in 1980s led to a complete shutdown of textile mills in the region, pushing Nitins family into difficult times. However, unlike others, Nitins parents kept their four children in good schools, ensuring a quality education even in dire straits. This has left an indelible mark in Nitins psyche and inspired him throughout his life. What, however, left a deep impression was the sacrifices his mother had to make to keep the family together. He realized that it is women who take the brunt of extreme poverty.As a college student Nitin initiated several successful movements and campaigns to improve student life. Even while working in the corporate sector, Nitin continued to be involved in the youth movement and interested in labor issues. He has done extensive personal interviews with people like his parents who lost their livelihoods rapidly with the demise of the textile mills and came to see that their sense of lost identity deeply affected their ability to adapt. With guidance from Professor Sharit Bhowmik, a professor of labor studies and management, and Nitins mentor, Nitin decided to focus all his energies on the citizen sector. He is also passionate about theater and founded the Marathi language chapter of the renowned Indian Peoples Theater Association. He hopes to return to theater later in his life.Nitin lives in Mumbai with his wife and daughter.