Defending Informal Workers’ Welfare Rights: Trade Union Struggles in Tamil Nadu

  • K. Kalpana Indian Institute of Technology Madras


The South Indian state of Tamil Nadu has had a rich history of informal workers’ movements and struggles that have pressured the state government to enact statutory schemes and set up worker welfare boards to extend social protection to informal workers. This article discusses the efforts of two prominent trade unions in the state to secure welfare benefits for informal workers, and explores the primary challenges, conflicts and dilemmas they have faced. It explores the troubled interfaces between trade unions and the worker welfare boards that the unions regard as the fruit of workers’ struggles and collective organising of the past. The unions have used the welfare boards to mobilise new occupational categories of workers as well as women workers in the lower rungs of the informal sector. At the same time, the welfare boards are a double-edged sword that the unions must carefully manage given the frustration and disappointments that ensue when the promise of social protection remains elusive to workers. Placing this case study in the larger context of labour movements across the world that have won contingent victories in protecting workers’ interests and well-being, the article raises troubling questions regarding the implications of these victories in neo-liberal state regimes.

KEY WORDS: informal workers; trade unions; welfare rights; labour organising; Tamil Nadu

Author Biography

K. Kalpana, Indian Institute of Technology Madras

K. Kalpana is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras, Chennai. Her research interests include gender, poverty, labour and microcredit. She is the author of Women, Microfinance and the State in Neo-liberal India (Routledge, 2017).

Kalpana Karunakaran