The construction industry is traditionally male-dominated: in fact in the United Kingdom, for example, women have just 9 percent of construction jobs, and most of those are in design, management or administration rather than actual operations. In India, however, 51 percent of construction workers are women, of which 98 percent are unskilled.

The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Gujarat state began organizing women construction workers in 1996, helping them assert their legal rights. But over time it became clear that women workers were struggling to find work. Globalization and technological advances have meant a reduction in the amount of work available. Individual women are particularly at a disadvantage, as employers prefer to give contracts to groups and they receive less money than their male counterparts.

In response to the changing trends, in 2005 SEWA founded the Rachaita cooperative of construction workers. It took two years to get the cooperative registered, because of a general lack of trust in the ability of women to run such an organization, but the cooperative is now flourishing, with around 370 members. The cooperative not only organizes technical training for its members, it serves as a platform, enabling them to take on small construction contracts as a collective group. Instead of standing by the side of the road or in the labour chowk (square) hoping to be hired individually on a daily basis, the women can bid for construction jobs as a group, making them more self-reliant and offering more stable livelihoods.

The women are trained in the use of construction materials, tools and equipment, concepts of measurements and proportions and other mathematical calculations relating to manpower, work volume and cost estimates. Often, the women were already skilled but lacked formal certification. The cooperative identifies the women workers according to their skills, then forms them into groups and gives them extensive training within the specialized groups. The on-the-job training is certified in association with a technical school and specializations include masonry, plastering, mosaics, floor-laying, bathroom-tiling, pest control, waterproofing and repair work.

Another major problem facing the women was a lack of tools. To address this issue SEWA came up with the unique concept of opening a tools and equipment library so that the Rachaita cooperative members could rent tools at a reasonable cost, like concreting machines, tile cutters, bar benders, drills and plastering tools. This helps them access many more jobs.

The average daily wage for the members has increased from 170 rupees to 350 rupees since the cooperative was founded, with many of them now working as skilled specialist workers rather than ordinary labourers. The cooperative’s goals, such as reducing inequality in wages between similarly skilled men and women, developing the capacity of women construction workers to become entrepreneurs and mainstreaming informal women workers to provide them with much needed visibility, voice and validity, are well on their way to being achieved.