The Tamil Nadu Labour Union (TNLU) in southern India is UnionAID’s longest running partnership. The TNLU team, led by Manohari Doss, is an umbrella organisation providing training, support for 18 unions and 17 cooperatives that it has developed with support from UnionAID. Today over 15,000 men and women, from vegetable growers in the high country of Kodaikanal to sandal makers in the slums of Madurai, are members of the TNLU. All are Dalit and Tribal people, who are often harassed and economically exploited under India’s caste system.
The TNLU works at a grassroots level educating Dalit and Tribal workers about their rights. Workers are shown how by joining together in a union they can bargain for better wages and conditions, or by forming a cooperative they can cut out middlemen and money lenders. Through education, the development of leaders, organisational structures, campaigns business plans the TNLU supports Dalit and Tribal workers to establish and maintain their own unions and cooperatives to fight for long lasting change.
The ongoing impact for workers of these unions is clear. In 2018, the TNLU helped members of the Manual Scavengers and Street Cleaners Union in Madurai to undertake legal action after workers did not receive stipulated wage increases for several years. The result was 470 workers receiving up to NZ$500 in backpay, a significant amount of money for men and women living week to week on low wages.
The TNLU staff surveyed members of the seven cooperatives established over the most recent three-year project period (2017-20). Their findings showed a 400% increase in the number of co-op members earning over 150 rupees per day and a 16% decrease in the number of members owing 5,000 rupees or more in household debt.
Not only have these men and women increased their incomes but they have confidence to assert their rights when dealing with government officials and middle-men. They express pride in belonging to a collective occupational group, and those who are illiterate can now “put their signature” to forms and petitions. The power of collective action to overcome injustice is key thread that runs through the TNLU’s advocacy as reflected in the words of Meenakshi, a leader of the Cremation Workers Union “only when we all clap together then they will hear us.”
Covid-19 and the subsequent government restrictions on travel and trade have had a devastating impact on working people in India, especially those working informally that receive no benefits and have little to fall back on. UnionAID’s current support for the TNLU is focussed in helping it’s cooperative and union members, get access to the government support they are entitled too, to safely re-start work and strengthen the cooperatives so they are more self-sustaining.