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Above: Saleswomen at a textile showroom in Kerala. They had to stand for hours and attend to customers/Photo: keralavisiontv.com

The Kerala government cleared amendments to labour laws to provide a “secure environment” for female workers. Now women working in retail stores can sit and even take breaks

~By NVR Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

It may seem a bit ironical but in the state that leads the country on most social indicators and is the only one where women outnumber men, nearly half a million of them are denied the most basic of facilities at their workplace—the right to sit. The women, mostly aged between 18 and 30, are engaged in the shops and jewellery showrooms across the state as salesgirls earning salaries ranging from Rs 6,000 to Rs 15,000 a month. As many of them are the sole breadwinners in their families, they are in no position to wage a battle against exploitation. The fact that such  injustice is happening in a state which had claimed notoriety for aggressive trade unionism and where daily wages for unskilled workers range between Rs 800 and Rs 1,000 remains an ironical reality.

Addressing this long-pending demand of women workers, the state government recently amended the Kerala Shops and Establishment Act, 1960, to allow women to sit during work. The move came about after women’s organisations under various banners brought the issue before multiple panels, including for human rights, women’s commissions and the government to address the very minimal demand—the right to sit for a few minutes during work. Penkoottu, a Kozhikode-based women’s forum, and its trade union front called AMTU-Kerala pioneered the stir which largely influenced the government to come out with the amendment. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Thiruvananthapuram, also helped the women win the protracted fight.

Hundreds of young women work in each of the large department stores and hypermarkets around the state, tending to customers. The cheery smiles on their faces as they attend to customers completely hides the fact that they haven’t had a minute to sit all day or even take a break in the washroom. Most of the textile shops and jewellery showrooms have consciously avoided putting chairs or stools to prevent the workers from sitting. Floor managers keep vigil to ensure that nobody is loitering and evading work. While local workers are allowed to leave by 7 pm (it is a favour shown to women workers), those who live in distant places have to stay back till 9 pm to avail of the drop facility.

Under the leadership of Penkoottu, a strike was organised from International Women’s Day (March 8) to International Labour Day (May 1), 2014, with massive participation of women workers at a textile show in Kozhikode. Speaking to India Legal, Penkoottu founder and state secretary of Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union–Kerala (AMTU) P Viji said their fight was to mount pressure on the managements to provide basic amenities at the workplace.

“At Mittayitheruvu (a prominent market) in Kozhikode, there were no toilet facilities for the workers in most of the shops. We contacted the traders’ forum, trade unions and authorities but no one helped us. During the stir, we also noticed the problem of saleswomen being denied the right to sit during work. Even labour department officials asked us whether there was a rule permitting the workers to sit. We asked them whether there was any rule forbidding workers from sitting during work,” Viji recollects.

“As saleswomen had to stand at a stretch for 10 to 12 hours a day, many of them were suffering from varicose veins, disk prolapse and other related illnesses. The managements were reluctant to heed our complaints. It was against this backdrop that we organised the stir, carrying chairs on our heads,” Viji added. The traders’ organisation state president, T Nazarudin, went to the extent of saying that women workers had better stay in their houses if they wanted to sit during work.

She said that since the LDF government was claiming to be a pro-worker dispensation, it had the responsibility to address the problem. She hoped that there would be perceptible change in the scenario once the rule was amended.

MP Siva, manager at Pothys, Thiruvananthapuram, a leading textile shop, said they had been allowing the saleswomen to sit on the seats provided behind sales counters. “We allow them to take a tea break twice besides the one-hour lunch break. Also, they can take a five-minutes break one or two times in case there are no customers,” she said.

Compared to the saleswomen in textile showrooms, the condition of those engaged by the jewellery showrooms is a little better. Chungath Jewellery’s managing director, Rajeev Paul, said it was a matter of propriety to receive the customer and show respect. “How can a saleswoman or salesman sit while the customer is standing before them? They are expected to behave respectfully with customers. Once the customer is made to sit, they can also sit. Unlike in textile showrooms, there will not be much rush of customers in a jewellery showroom. The saleswomen get enough time to sit,” he pointed out. He also claimed that saleswomen are allowed to leave the showroom by 7 pm while their male counterparts have to stay back till the shutters are downed.

While approving the amendment to the Shops and Establishment Act, 1960, the state cabinet has also stated that it would lift the ban on women employees working night shifts in shops and establishments. Sonia George, state secretary, SEWA, a central trade union of women’s federations, said a reality check would make everyone convinced that nothing had changed since the government’s decision.

“We have no dearth of laws. What is important is effective implementation. But I don’t think there will be any effort to implement the law in letter and spirit,” she said. She also pointed out that in spite of the government’s directive that a worker not be made to work more than 10 hours, including overtime, in almost all textile showrooms the workers have to follow a 12-hour schedule.

However, welcoming the government move, Rajitha G, project co-coordinator, Sakhi, an NGO working for women’s empowerment, said since the government had enacted a rule it will naturally reflect on the management’s approach. “Amending the rules is a welcome step. Of course, the implementation is more important,” she said. About the lifting of the ban on night shifts for women workers, she said it would help those women who want to work at night.

“There is a provision to engage women in a group of five and there should be at least two women in the group during the night shift. As the drop facility has been made mandatory, it will not be a problem,” she points out.

Welcoming the decision, Indian National Trade Union Congress state general secretary VR Prathapan told India Legal that the government’s decision is in the right direction.

“In fact, the central trade unions could do nothing worthwhile to solve the problems of saleswomen. In case they join a trade union, they will be thrown out of their jobs, citing various reasons. It was the work by NGOs like Penkoottu that helped the women to win the long-drawn fight,” he admits.

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