Anasuya Sarabhai was the founder of the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association, and also initiated the women’s labour movement in India. Under Anasuya, the union worked for the welfare of workers, not against the mill owners. It was her personal concern for the workers and her open approach towards the mill owners that ensued a harmonious relationship between the workers and mill owners.
Her association had a non-confrontational attitude. In 1978, the union was representing 1.5 lakh workers of 65 textile mills in Gujarat. Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA, worked under Anasuya Sarabhai as a young college graduate back then.
Here are 5 facts about Anasuya Sarabhai you must know:
1. She was married off at the mere age of 13.
Anasuya Sarabhai lost both her parents when she was only nine. She and her siblings were raised by their father’s younger brother, Chimanbhai Sarabhai. She was forcibly married off by her uncle at the age of 13. It was a brief and unhappy marriage, shortly after, she divorced her husband and returned to her family.
2. Anasuya was always determined to study.
After she returned home, she was determined to continue her studies. Her brother, Ambalal, completely supported her in this. In 1912, she left for England to continue her studies. There, after meeting suffragettes and Fabian socialists, she found her calling to serve the cause of social equality.
3. She opened schools, creches, toilets, a maternity home and a hostel for the dis-empowered section of the society.
After returning to India in 1913, she started working with the dis-empowered communities. She opened a school for poor students of all castes; she used to bathe and teach them herself. Following which, she started opening creches and toilets for women, a maternity home and even a hostel for Harijan girls in her home.
4. It took just one conversation to turn Anasuya’s attention to the cause of workers.
Describing the life-changing experience, Anasuya had once said:
“One morning, I was sitting outside in the compound combing out the children’s hair when I saw a group of 15 workers passing by as if in a trance. I called out to them, even though I did not know them well, and asked them, “What’s the matter? Why do you look so listless?’
They said: “Behen, we have just finished 36 straight hours of work. We have worked for two nights and a day without a break, and now we are on our way home.” These words filled me with horror. This was no different than the kind of slavery that women faced!”
She was shocked to horror! The more Anasuya learnt about the condition of mill workers, the more determined she became to organize them.
5. Anasuya Sarabhai fought against her brother, Ambalal, to sow the seeds for the trade union movement in India.
In 1914, when Ahmedabad was hit by a plague, the mill workers went to Anasuya and requested her to take up their cause. She advocated better wages and working conditions for the workers. She gave the mill owners 48 hours to meet her demands, after which the workers would go on a strike. This time, she had to battle the displeasure of her brother who was the then-president of the Mill Owner’s Association.
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It was a 21-day strike, at the end of which mill-owners agreed to pay higher wages to the workers. Thus, the seeds for the trade union movement in India were sown.