When we all clap together: Labour unions as agents of development for informal cremation workers in Tamil Nadu
While labour unions have a history of helping lift working people out of poverty in Western countries, their place in development is unclear. Mainstream development literature typically sees their potential contribution to development to be limited and waning as they are replaced by new, more dynamic actors. This dismissal of labour unions from the development sphere appears to stem largely from their inability to effectively support workers in the informal economy of developing countries, whom are the most likely to face injustice and poverty. In order to address the question of whether labour unions can be agents for development of informal workers this thesis examines a case study of the Mayana Vettiyangal Sangam, a labour union of informal cremation workers in Tamil Nadu, India. Through semi-structured interviews with 39 members and supporters of the labour union, this thesis explores both the mechanics of the Mayana Vettiyangal Sangam and what it has achieved for its cremation worker members. It sets out to understand what strategies can be employed for informal workers to undertake collective bargaining and how effective these have been at delivering livelihood improvements for the cremation workers in Tamil Nadu. It also assesses both the functions of the Sangam and what it has achieved, against three principles of ‘good development’ – participation, sustainability and equity. The findings show that through a mixture of innovative strategies the cremation workers in Tamil Nadu have been able to achieve some livelihood improvements and do so in a manner which is both participatory and equitable. It suggests that despite challenges, labour unions can be agents of development for informal workers and their potential contribution to development should not be overlooked.