Women-led climate action in the informal economy

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Anne McPherson

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Pranita Achyut, ICRW Asia’s Director of Research and Programs, interviewed Rehanaben Riyawala, the CEO of Grassroot Trading Network for Women (GTNfW), an organization that explores and green initiatives for Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) members working in the informal economy across 100 different trades. They discussed ICRW and SEWA’s partnership working with salt pan workers in the Runn of Kutch area of Gujarat, India. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and how the climate action initiative came about?

I’m Rehanaben Riyawala, the CEO of Grassroot Trading Network for Women (GTNfW), an organization that explores green livelihoods and green initiatives for Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) members working in the informal economy across 100 different trades. Since 2001, I have been working with SEWA members whose lives are most affected by climate change. From floods to unseasonal rainfall, droughts and cyclones, to increased heat, we are trying to build resilience against this climate change to protect their way of life.

Can you elaborate on the major climate change-related barriers that women from under-resourced communities are experiencing?

The women working in the informal economy have no employer-employee relationship and few to no policies or safety nets to protect them. They are struggling to make ends meet and often depend on the multiple livelihood opportunities to survive. The climate crisis exacerbates their economic security, health concerns, other issues related to poverty.

Two-thirds of SEWA’s membership includes small-scale farmers or agricultural workers in rural areas. The biggest challenge for them is climate change followed by market risk. For many years, the farmers have faced irregular rainfall, drought or excessive rain. They can lose their crops or cattle feed because of flooding, resulting in food and economic insecurity. Similarly these environmental impacts then have knock-on effects for street vendors who cannot sell their products. The trash pickers and waste recyclers, who are the most vulnerable of the group, have their own struggles. Because of cultural and structural barriers, women have historically not been protected against these challenges.

How is SEWA working with its members to address these climate shocks?

Most of our members are informal workers who earn a daily wage or seasonal income for their services and face cultural or structural barriers, which limits their access to finance, markets or productive technologies. Our members work in more than 100 different trades, which we have categorized into four major categories: street vendors and hawkers, small producers like small and marginal farmers, home-based workers, and manual laborers and service providers.

During our 50th year, we asked our members, “What should the next 50 years of SEWA look like?” Collectively, we recognized our organizational strength and values as major assets and questioned how should we leverage those assets to address climate shocks and make our members’ lives more sustainable through a just and equitable transition. We passed a resolution to work towards making cleaner and clearer sky for all through a campaign called ‘Swaach Aakash’ (‘Clean Sky’).  The campaign  will help our members across all states undersand the climate shocks and support them in developing climate mitigation and adaptation plans based on their local context. These learnings will help them develop the ‘Swaach Aakash’ action plans to generate clean energy for their work and homes.

What does the Clean Sky initiative mean for the salt pan workers?

In 2007, during the global economic crises, SEWA conducted small studies which showed that informal workers, including salt pan workers, spent 30-40% of their income on accessing household or trade-related energy. Because of this, GTNfW and SEWA worked towards bringing in access to clean and cost efficient energy, which led to reduced poverty and improved livelihoods for this community. The first major initiative was to replace diesel pumps with solar pumps, which helped reduce input costs by approximately 50%, improved the environmental impact of production, and allowed for the salt pan workers to be part owners of the pumps.

The salt pan workers are the most vulnerable among our members. They migrate with their whole families from their villages to work 6-8 months in the desert, working under the scorching sun with limited water and living in small cloth huts. They have to carry water, food and other basic amenities and replenish frequently from their village. Further, the process of in-land salt production is labor intensive. They have to prepare pans, dig wells, ensure continuous supply of underground water, maintain salinity of water, and work long hours in saline water racking salt crystals. Heat waves can reduce their working hours thus affecting their income. The winds and storms affect the salt quality and rains reduce the salinity and quality of salt.

The salt pan workers previously had a high dependency on traders, who would set rates of salt before the season and provide advance money at high interest rates to farmers to manage their family and farm, which further entrenches them in the vicious cycle of poverty. To address this, SEWA helps the workers understand their options and the economics of the production, facilitates regular trade committee meetings, provides marketing skills training and access to affordable finance while encouraging negotiating tactics for fair prices. Now, women farmers are negotiating rates with the traders. We have also  worked with the government to operate childcare centers and schools for the children of the workers. Before the Tauktae cyclone in 2021, salt pan workers were not even considered for the government relief packages.

These efforts help connect the workers with the environment and supports them in the responsible stewardship of natural resources while reducing emissions and improving their economic standing. We cannot predict climate events, but we can help the workers with protections to withstand these shocks.

Credit: Martin Wright / Ashde via Climate Visuals

What is the value of the research that ICRW and SEWA are doing with the saltpan workers? How can it be used?

The efforts of the small and marginal women farmers are often invisible and left out of the policies or programmes. This research will be critical in building understanding and evidence on climate action initiatives led by informal sector woman collectives situated within the economic empowerment model of SEWA. The study will highlight the effects of climate change on salt pan workers, help build individual and collective resilience and support on-going innovations. The study will also identify pathways towards asset ownership and the economic empowerment of these women.

Given salt pan workers operate in extremely harsh conditions with limited amenities and services, the study will also provide insights on food security, health care, childcare, education and other critical aspects of life.

We intend to take forward the results at the policy level and bring significant changes. Insights will help us highlight women-led climate action initiatives, recognize their contributions and include their voices in decision-making processes and policy-making.

What are some things you are still concerned about?

Poor women workers are the most adaptable to climate risk, yet are often not recognized because of cultural and structural barriers. Our members are regularly piloting new affordable technologies and working towards solutions, but do not have access to financing or technologies or safety nets that are essential to help build resilience to climate change.

We need to recognize those at the bottom of the pyramid as a part of the solution, including waste recyclers and trash pickers. How do we bring them into this process and give them visibility? How do we create benefits for them?

We need to create awareness and explain the impact and benefit of changes like buying a solar pump while making those tools accessible and affordable, and ultimately allow women workers to own these pumps as a green asset.

How can we take this work forward?

We need to continue these types of small-scale studies and conduct feasibility studies to understand how would women-led climate initiatives fit into the larger agenda of the country and the world. By bringing this evidence and womens’ perspectives to policymakers, they can better recognize and understand their concerns and needs. This is not going to happen immediately, but is a long game done with intention and supported by evidence.