#ChildhoodMatters Episode 12: Universal child care is not just a rights issue but a labour issue, says Mirai Chatterjee

Ahead of International Workers’ Day, SEWA’s Director of Social Security, India’s commissioner to WHO’s first and only Commission on Social Determinants for Health, and member of UPA’s national advisory council, speaks to ICFJ fellow Biraj Swain.

ByBiraj Swain
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#ChildhoodMatters Episode 12: Universal child care is not just a rights issue but a labour issue, says Mirai Chatterjee
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Biraj Swain: Why is SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) leading the call for universal child care? We have always thought of SEWA as this iconic women’s trade union, what makes it so interested in universal child care?

Mirai Chatterjee: SEWA is a national trade union of self-employed women with over 15 lakh members across 15 states in India. We are also one of the co-founders of WEIGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalising and Organising). And the campaign for Quality Public Child Care for All Workers is an organic campaign, one of the core long-standing demands of our members, which has evolved into a global campaign now.

When Ela Bhatt, the founder member of SEWA, was helming the Textile Mill Workers Union’s women’s wing in 1972, she was approached by informal women workers to help them set up their union in Ahmedabad. These were largely head-loaders, beedi-workers and that was the introduction of Ela Bhatt to the complexities of the world of work of women in the informal/unorganised sector. The two top-most challenges of these women were:

  • Lack of access to credit
  • Lack of any full day care for children accessible to these women

Child care services have always been “front and centre” of SEWA’s concerns. As part of the union charter, our back-of-envelop calculations showed a doubling in women’s income if they had access to full day care of eight hours for their children. Hence, SEWA Bank and SEWA-run crèches, with trained care-givers (who are informal workers themselves), have been some of our first and most enduring interventions.

In fact, we have also set up a Child Care Workers’ Cooperative. If there was one indicator of SEWA’s commitment to child care, then the care workers’ cooperative is SEWA’s commitment to building the sustainability of the child care eco-system!

Biraj Swain: Then why the campaign now? Is it a response to the constantly falling women work force participation in India or the enduring challenge of child malnutrition? Why now?

Mirai Chatterjee: Before I answer that question, let me give you some perspective on how we see child care at SEWA. SEWA’s health programme focusing on maternity entitlements is one of our original interventions, which was scaled up by the then government of Gujarat. In 1984, when I joined SEWA, I used to go from village to village surveying pregnant and lactating women and distributing nutritional supplements. We see feminism, fertility and families intrinsically connected. Hence a good trade union movement of informal sector women should not just address their informality, but also their maternity and health concerns.

So the maternity entitlement component of SEWA’s health programme is as important as the savings and credit component of SEWA Bank.

The current campaign is a response to the long neglect the issue has got from the trade union movement. And that is not because trade union leaders aren’t aware of the importance of public-funded child care in the world of work, but because most trade union leaders are men. So they are sensitive and empathetic, but the leadership and agency has to be of women.

And increasing feminisation of marginal, informal work, falling women work force participation and the stubborn levels of high malnutrition are triggers too.

The UP Building and Other Construction Work Act of 1996 has mandated construction sites to provide for a creche at the work site if they employ more than 50 women. This has been expanded to other states and sectors too. But it needs to be universal and accessible to informally engaged women too and not just formally employed women workers. Hence the campaign.

Biraj Swain: Tell us more about the members of the campaign? Are there other movements in it? Do you have a standard charter or are different regions/countries adopting the central charter?

Mirai Chatterjee: The campaign is a coalition of the women’s movement, cooperative movement, trade union movement and the child care campaigners. In India it is being helmed by FORCES, Forum for Creches and Child Care Services, which has Mobile CrechesCWDS, Centre for Women’s Development Studies and us at the helm. Globally, WEIGO undertook a multi-country research where partners led the in-country studies and the large unmet need of child care services emerged. The enormity of the gap, combined with steep increase in costs of private child care services and the withdrawal of the state from child care services, meant a global campaign was necessary to bring back the focus to child care services.

Once the resolution was passed in India by SEWA and FORCES and globally with WEIGO’s leadership, more partners joined in. The latest being the International Labour Organisation.

Biraj Swain: Other than the working women’s need and the increasing household income rationale, what are the other pegs for the campaign? And while asking this question, I am acutely aware that quality care for every child funded by taxpayers is an end in itself and does not need other goals to justify it. But still?

Mirai Chatterjee: Our studies have focused on the impact on income of working women if they had access to full day care for their children, and it is almost double.

We haven’t had any case of severe acute malnutrition among children in SEWA creches. They might have come in a state of higher grade malnutrition but within months they improve a lot and we haven’t had any incidence of severe or acute malnutrition once children joined the day-care centres. We are also undertaking studies with rigour to map this impact. We think it is important to undertake malnutrition monitoring studies in all crèches to make a case for universal access to crèches/child care services, especially full day care.

Then there is the impact on increasing school attendance and learning outcomes of elder siblings, who would have otherwise attended to their younger siblings, in the absence of care services.

Not to forget, the impact on cognitive development of the children in the care centres, who also benefit from the full day’s feeding, care and stimulation with the care-givers and other children.

So we are undertaking studies on the impact of full-day quality child care services on malnutrition reduction and cognitive development of the children too.

Biraj Swain: How do you see your campaign speaking to the Anganwadi Centres funded by taxpayers under the largest child development scheme of the world, the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services)?

Mirai Chatterjee: Well, we want the Anganwadi Centres to be strengthened, the feeding, care, stimulation and education, all to be equally prioritised. We would also want the centres to become full-day care centres and not 3 hours-4 hours drop-off centres for children. That means greater allocation of budget too.

Biraj Swain: Do you think the current government treats children as a public policy and public finance focus? With the budget cut and everything?

Mirai Chatterjee: We think the current government is interested but that interest is not backed by adequate resources. So you see the launch of the National Nutrition Mission which is a marker of serious intent but also a slashing of budget that contradicts the intent. But we think there is serious intent and we would like to leverage that by putting the child-care agenda in the spotlight.

Also, the fact that I have access to key officials and ministers now, even though I have been a member of the previous government’s national advisory council, means the issue is important for them and not just politicking around the issue.

Biraj Swain: What about the media, pop culture depiction of child care, children’s issues?

Mirai Chatterjee: I think men are becoming sensitive and the demand for paternity leave is a marker of that interest/sensitivity and some films/movies do have protagonists who are hands-on dads. But that is too few and far between.

Biraj Swain: Hindi cinema has the care-giver like Dai-Ma, Ayah as an important presence but there is no committed reference to child care challenges, either in movies or serials, unlike in serials like Guys with Kids, programmes like John Oliver’s deep dive on Mother’s Day which focused on importance of paid family leave. We had the Griha Lakshmi campaign on breast-feeding but it was in the news for many wrong reasons, including sexism. Your thoughts?

Mirai Chatterjee: I do think much more could be, should be done in sitcoms, serials and pop culture content.

Biraj Swain: Since SEWA is a trade union too, what do you think of the Anganwadi workers’, ASHA movement for better wages and regularisation?

Mirai Chatterjee: We completely support their movement. India’s healthcare and child care delivery is riding on the shoulders of an unpaid and under-paid army of frontline women workers and increasing their wages, improving their working conditions, regularising them is a very valid demand. This ties in with our demand for increasing financial allocations to the Integrated Child Development Programme and the health programmes too.

Biraj Swain: Any parting thoughts?

Mirai Chatterjee: Yes, other than state government, we feel engaging with fathers, men, is equally important. Breaking the stereotype of child-care as woman’s burden is necessary and we hope to address that through the Campaign for Quality Public Child Care for All Workers.

It will be on-ground in the traditional organising, mass-movement way, online through the digital and social media platforms too. And we would like you, Newslaundry, your readers, viewers to join the campaign too.

The author can be reached at biraj_swain@hotmail.com 

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