Indian Laureate Ela Bhatt, who fought for women’s labour rights, dies at 89
Indian lawyer Ela Bhatt, who received the 1984 Right Livelihood Award for working to elevate poor self-employed women, has passed away. She is well-known for establishing the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which encompasses more than 2 million women today. Bhatt passed away on Wednesday, November 2, at the age of 89.
“Ela Bhatt was a compassionate champion for some of India’s poorest women,” said Ole von Uexkull, Right Livelihood’s Executive Director. “She saw the injustices suffered by these courageous women, who worked in the informal sector day in and day out to provide for their families, and created a space for them to stand up for their rights. Bhatt’s work has impacted millions of women and their families throughout India.”
Born in 1933, Bhatt worked as a lawyer and social worker. By 1968, she was chief of the women’s section of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad, India. In this position, she witnessed first-hand the conditions suffered by poor self-employed women in the city and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia.
In 1972, Bhatt set up SEWA, a trade union to fend for the rights of women working in the informal sector with little labour protection. These women are among India’s most vulnerable.
“Anything that makes us rootless, ruthless, voiceless, and futureless, is not worth our pursuit however profitable it may be,” Bhatt told Right Livelihood in 2021.
“I urge our women and workers who will have to lead the way, now, to build an economy of nurturance, a nurturing economy that profits from planting trees and not cutting forests, harvesting water and not polluting water, and, encouraging communal ownership of assets.”
Through their organisation and solidarity, SEWA members acquired new negotiating power with their employers. They have established health, death and maternity benefit schemes to give them security.
They have set up dozens of cooperatives of various trade groups to share skills and expertise, develop new tools, designs and techniques, and engage in bulk buying and joint marketing.
Within three years of its founding, SEWA had 7,000 members and was registered as a trade union with the government – a formidable hurdle to have surmounted. By 1995, its members numbered 218,700, making it the largest single union in India.
Today, SEWA has more than 2 million members thanks to its solidarity model. During the Covid-19 pandemic, SEWA provided essential services to its members and their communities, including helping them continue their work and providing healthcare.
Bhatt received the Right Livelihood Award jointly with SEWA for “helping home-based producers to organise for their welfare and self-respect.”