By Prarthana Mitra
Female workers in Kerala’s textile sector have finally won the right to take a break, after a hard-fought legal battle. The state government on July 4 responded to state-wide street protests by shop assistants, announcing it would amend the existing labour law that failed to protect workers’ rights, including the right to sit.
The cabinet has promised to limit work hours for female employees to eight hours a day with a minimum monthly starting salary of Rs 10,000 and has already directed employers to provide women workers with a tea and a lunch break. More importantly, the new laws will include a clause obliging employers to let women sit and provide them with a chair or stool at the workplace.
Here’s what happened
Women working in the state’s unorganised sector, especially as salespersons in Kerala’s textile shops, had to remain standing for 12-14 hours at a stretch daily. Only two five-minute toilet breaks and a 30-minute lunch break were offered. Leaning against the wall (even for a few seconds), speaking to others and sitting during work hours were subject to penalisation that included a pay cut. Employers even monitor CCTV footage, from abroad, to check for compliance.
“We can’t use the lifts either. All customers pay on the ground floor for their purchases and we have to accompany them so we are up and down the stairs all day. A few times, when we did use the lift, customers complained about having to share it with us,” a victim of the system who wished to remain anonymous, informed The Guardian.
Here’s how the tides were turned
For a left-leaning state like Kerala, it is a mystery why labour law-makers managed to let these abysmal conditions be an oversight.
How women workers in Kerala stood up for their right to sit
— The Times Of India (@timesofindia) July 16, 2018
A women’s union launched the movement demanding their ‘right to sit’, after decades of putting up with such draconian and medieval working conditions. Penkoot founded Asanghadita Mekhala Tozhilali Union (AMTU) after the men’s labour union failed to champion their cause. Highlighting the plight of women employees since 2010, Penkoot fought tooth and nail against the wage gap and health issues stemming from the constant standing. In 2008, her battle began when a sales assistant in Kozhikode who leaned against a wall while a customer pondered which sari to buy, had her pay cut by Rs 100 rupees for the “offence”.
In 2014, women employees of Kalyan Sarees in Thrissur also went on strike after most of their female employees began to suffer from kidney-related issues, varicose veins, swollen feet, and back pain because of the ‘no sitting at work’ policy.
“The women are careful not to drink too much because they cannot go to the toilet when they want to. They get urinary infections, kidney problems. They have varicose veins and joint pain from standing. It took us a long time for the government to pay any attention to this problem,” said Penkoot.
“It’s our policy to protect the interests of all our women workers and this gap in the law had to be plugged,” said Thozil Bhawan, a labour commissioner.
Penkoot also expressed concern about whether this will make it difficult for women to secure jobs. She told The Times of India, “The shop owners, including the Kerala merchants’ union, had said if people wanted to sit or use the toilet, they should just sit at home. That really made us angry, and we started the ‘iruppu samaram’, or the right to sit.”
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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