Utensil workers to form their own cooperative
Jeevanandhan’s days are spent in a lopsided hut down a back alley in Madurai, surrounded by metal bowls piled to the ceiling and stifling humidity. His whole life he has worked as a utensil maker, scuffing simple designs onto the side of rice bowls or punching holes to make colanders.
The heat is oppressive and Jeevanandhan’s colleagues all work shirtless. Just as oppressive is the constant din of hammer on metal. The sound of half a dozen men hammering in unison vibrates through the ground in the alleyway.
The work is not only hard, it also requires particular skills. Using hands to hammer and feet to slowly rotate the bowl Jeevanandhan methodically creates perfect designs on each bowl. But despite his skill and hard work the pay is barely enough to support himself and his family. For each bowl produced he will receive less than 40 cents.
“The shop owners give us the vessels and we have to finish them on time. If we break a vessel they’ll deduct the cost from our pay. We want to form a cooperative so we can sell the vessels ourselves. Also as a cooperative we can petition the government for social security benefits for us and our families.”
The solution they plan is to start their own cooperative and cut out the shop owners by selling directly to customers and realise the full value of the work they do. With the help of training from the Tamil Nadu Labour Union, over the next two years they will elect cooperative leaders, develop a business and marketing plan and start their own shop.
Jeevanandhan is aware it won’t be an easy process. Pushback from shop owners is expected, especially as he and other utensil makers are Dalit, the ‘untouchable’ caste in India. However, they know that working together they have the collective power and strength to change their economic situation and the lives of their families.