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Above: The Kerala government cleared amendments to labour laws last year to ensure saleswomen could sit and take breaks

A year after the Kerala government amended rules to make working conditions better for salesgirls working primarily in textile and jewellery shops, little seems to have changed 

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

Five years ago, Penkoottu, an organisation of women working on several establishments in a commercial part of Kozhikode, started the Right to Sit campaign after it was found that the women employed in textile shops were not allowed to sit during their working hours. The campaign bore fruit last July when the Kerala government enacted the amendment to the Kerala Shops and Establishments Act to make it mandatory for employers to provide sitting arrangements and limit the working hours to eight.

Almost a year on, Penkoottu is now planning a two-month-long campaign to ensure that the government order on women workers’ right to sit is implemented by the managements. It was found that despite the order, most of the shop managements are denying women workers the right to sit, citing that they cannot do so while customers are around. The campaign will start on March 8, International Women’s Day, and end on May 1, Labour Day.

Speaking to India Legal, Penkoottu secretary P Viji, who a few years ago was recognised by the BBC as one of the 100 women who created positive change in the world for her role in the campaign, said their volunteers would keep a watch on the shops to see whether the government order is being implemented or not.

“If we see the problem still persisting, our volunteers will try to sensitise the saleswomen and other workers of their rights. We will also ask the employers to comply with the government order. If they object to that or come up with excuses, we will take the issue to the courts, and bring up the matter with the concerned authorities,” she said.

Viji said she started the forum to protest and argue for women’s rights as the managements, especially of textile shops, were forcing saleswomen to stand for over 10 to 12 hours daily. “The only change we see now is that there are one or two stools in the showrooms or textile shops. It is just eyewash to dodge the authorities. The saleswomen are not expected to sit there,” she points out.

Speaking to India Legal, a saleswoman working in a big textile group in Thiruvananthapuram, which has its head office in Tamil Nadu, said there was very little change in the attitude of the management even though the government has introduced amendments to the Shops and Establishments Act.

“We are given the choice of continuing the job without complaining or quit, claiming whatever benefits are available to us. The shop managements are taking the amendment as a joke,” the saleswoman, preferring anonymity, said. Another textile group which has employed over 500 salesgirls in its cramped showroom near the famous Sree Padmanabha­swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, has been facing complaints of lack of proper sanitation and seating facilities in the showroom.

Many of the major textile chains and jewellery groups have arranged accommodation and food for their employees. But under cover of this, the workers are forced to work for over 12 hours. Many of these groups are lodging women workers in a cramped and suffocating atmosphere.

Penkoottu, which has reached out to the saleswomen across the state, plans to bring the situation to the notice of the authorities. “We will begin our efforts in Kozhikode and spread it to other districts in due time,” Viji said.

Viji also pointed out that one of the major problems these women face in the workplace is lack of toilet facilities. In small shops set up over 100 to 200 sq ft, women workers cannot ask for provision of separate toilets. Absence of proper sanitation facilities is causing serious health hazards to women workers. Viji said Penkoottu was planning to pressure the employers to provide toilets for the employees wherever these are not provided.

Viji, the 50-year-old activist who is among the three Indians on the “100 Women 2018” list released by the BBC, is happy that her contribution has been recognised and her name is included among other influential women around the globe.

“I am very happy about being on the list. It points to the fact that women all over the world are facing similar challenges and crises. Initially, when we assembled to share our experiences, many of us were crying. It is a question of having minimum humanitarian rights,” she points out. The list, which comprises “inspiring and influential women” from over 60 countries, includes names like actor Jameela Jamil and Chilean writer Isabel Allende.

Noted writer and women’s activist Sarah Joseph, who participated in the agitation for the saleswomen’s rights, said that she was part of a sit-in before a textile showroom at Thrissur for 21 days in the fight for basic human rights.

“Some of the managements have placed some stools or chairs in showrooms. But that doesn’t mean that the saleswomen sit there, as an atmosphere of fear is prevailing. If you sit, it will be treated like indiscipline. A stronger enforcement of the law is needed. Customers often point out to the managements about the saleswomen’s right to sit,” she said.

Viji’s collective was formed in late 2009 after mainstream trade unions refused to take up the cause of the unorganised women workers seriously. Recollecting this, Joseph said that mainstream trade unions affiliated to the political parties would not act as these textile and jewellery groups are the main sources of their funds.

She pointed out that women workers of the plantation sector had to get united and fight for themselves banning the entry of mainstream trade union leaders in Munnar in Idukki district.

Saleswomen are forced to stay on their feet all day, even when there are no customers in the shops. Some women choose not to drink enough water even in hot weather as they cannot go often to relieve themselves.

The Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopanasamithi (an umbrella organisation of traders) leadership had once taken an open stand against women workers demanding their right to have a toilet or a stool to sit.

Its leaders had told the saleswomen that they could stay home if they wanted to sit during working hours.

While last year’s decision to amend the rules was widely welcomed, there were sceptics even then.

Sonia George, state secretary, SEWA, a central trade union of women’s federations, had then said that a reality check would convince everyone that nothing would change. She was perhaps right.

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