Building a Union of Street Vendors in Bengaluru

1149163_743188589067481_1407106341_oBengaluru   I had a long list of things I needed to get done on this trip to India, catch up with Dharmendra Kumar in Delhi on our progress at blocking multi-brand retail in Delhi and stopping foreign direct investment, state by state, and evaluate our growing, alliance with hawkers, and my coming visit with Vinod Shetty in Mumbai will focus on our progress in Dharavi and see the developments in the sorting system for our wastepickers were vital.  But, none ranked higher than visiting with Suresh Kadashan and seeing if we had finally succeeded in forming official, registered unions for the informal workers we were organizing in Bengaluru.

            The organizing was certainly not new.  We had been plugging away at it for about five years with wastepickers, hawkers, domestic workers, and others, but eighteen months ago our decision had been to bite the bullet and register formally as an independent trade union under the laws of the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru with about 5 million people is the capital and largest city.  The rest of the world may know Bangalore by its old name and its reputation as India’s tech center or as “silicon” city, as some of the boosters are saying now, but that’s another world from our organizing with slum dwellers and informal workers.  1614525_743188425734164_1782074469_o

            But every month we would try to register and could get no decision, and this went on, frustratingly, for over a year until this last December, when finally a deputy labor commissioner agreed to a path forward.  Winning the registration was a matter of signatures from members and producing a minimum number (150) at a meeting of the street vendors.  We now have organized the vendors in 25 different street markets throughout the city and once the process is finalized in coming months Suresh expects we will find ourselves with 6000 new dues-paying members.  I was with Suresh yesterday as we bussed and auto-rickshawed to various street markets to meet with the officers of local branches of our new union in several places.  1782537_743188469067493_1394852361_o

I also got to watch him have an impromptu noon meeting with 35 vendors on a side street market that needed to come into the union in order to fight for space under the Metro since a bridge was about to displace them once construction began.  It was exciting to watch a small plastic tarp spread over nearby dirt transformed into an organizing meeting!  Already our fledgling union has successfully filed cases against police harassment of vendors based on protections for sellers that are included in the state constitution, giving hard pressed hawkers some spring in their step.  In the meeting as well, Suresh dramatically pulled out the application papers for a national pension scheme that could provide small retirements for our members after 60 based on a 2:1 match annually that, importantly, has to be certified by the official seal of our union.1956692_743188309067509_1196393137_o

Registrations for a wastepickers union floundered, when the city privatized wet and dry garbage pickup, but we’re watching that situation closely.  We’ve also now filed for a local union of street food preparers which could yield another 2000 members, once approved, and, yes, India is the home of the craft union, more than the industrial model, as you can see. 

Opportunity within the informal sector abounds.  Leaders estimated 130000 street vendors ply their wares in Bengaluru and perhaps a million-and-a-half are vendors among all of Karnataka 61 million people, but in this huge state, that’s still a bridge too far perhaps since 10 of the 15 districts would have to organize in order to win a statewide union charter.

            Big dreams and hard work, yield big dividends, and finally our new union is alive and growing in Bengaluru, but that also means even bigger dreams and harder work lie ahead of us in the future.  It was thrilling to be a part of it all!

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Building the Informal Workers Union in Bengaluru and the Health Camp

crowd awaiting health screenings

Bengaluru   For several years in Bengaluru (Bangalore) our main focus has been organizing informal workers into unions, not because it’s easy, but because it’s necessary.  Informal workers in construction, domestic work, street vending or hawking, and wastepicking in the state of Karnataka cannot obtain identification cards and therefore ration cards unless their employer or their union can verify their address.  Besides the normal benefits that come with unionization (solidarity, improved livelihood, collective action and protection), creating a registered union of informal workers allows such workers to qualify for social security and other benefits.

Technically the law in Karnataka had said that a petition had to be signed by 100 or more valid workers in each occupation and a “charter” or registration would be issued to ACORN Bengaluru for a union for domestic workers, a union for construction workers, and a union for wastepickers.   The regulations raj wasn’t moving though and our petitions have now been sitting for 18 to 24 months without action by the state.  A belated May Day action with many joining with us several weeks ago pressed the demands to the state for action, and finally Karnataka has moved to speed up the process of registration for all of our unions.  Today in an all day meeting with one of our large settlements of Dalit construction workers, where 60 members have already signed with our union out of the 200 families living there, our tireless organizer, Suresh Kadashan, was informing the leadership that a final meeting would be happening within two weeks with the registration complete so enrollments could be complete.

The organizing tool Suresh was using this Sunday was setting up a “health camp” in the construction workers squatting settlement on disputed land between a private holder and the railway.  He had convinced a doctor to volunteer and provide health screenings for diabetes, heart, and blood pressure and then out of his pocket provide some simple medicines, the diabetes strips, and referrals if needed to area hospitals.  Over 4 or 5 hours, we provided 99 screenings without the doctor and his equally volunteering nurse taking a break.  On the plus side as a medical process it was the most transparent and community supporting health event that I’ve ever seen.  Everyone clumped around and watched.  They laughed at the pinprick the doc would administer on a finger.  Without prompting, the men stepped back and allowed the women and children to go first for hours and hours.  On the minus side 37 of the 99 tested positive for diabetes across all age groups, which was startling.  The culprit seems to be diet and the fact that most the cooking oils are not refined making them amazingly dangerous (Suresh told me that studies had found 9 of the 10 local companies in violation and having gone to market with bribes rather than filters).  They are killing people stated flatly.  This unusual organizing exercise was felt by Suresh to have been a success today, since the last man to be tested was the informal “mayor” of the village, and seeing the process he gave the union a ringing endorsement after he was examined.

doctor & nurse set up as Suresh Kadashan lends a hand with an ear mite check

Our union of street vendors or hawkers faces greater challenges though in Bengaluru.  The national hawkers law passed by the Indian Parliament in recent years established a similar entitlement for these informal workers to have a union, but left it to each state to determine the ways and means.  Karnataka has essentially sat on the process.  First they claimed to us that they weren’t sure what a “street vendor” was, so we turned in over 2600 surveys filled out by workers (there are an estimated 60,000 hawkers in Bengaluru!), and still nothing.  A committee was finally established late in 2011, but still no real action.  We are committed to political action over the rest of the year and have an agreement from several advocates to file a PIL (public interest lawsuit) before the end of the year to force action.

It’s not easy in India, but slowly but surely, we’re getting it done in Bengaluru!

our doctor volunteer in action

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