INDIA: Women workers in Kerala win prolonged battle for ‘right to sit’

The struggle for the right to sit is not a new one for female workers in Kerala. In Kerala, eight years ago, a women’s collective Penkootu, took up the issue of the right to sit (‘iruppu samaram’) at the workplace, especially in saree and jewellery showrooms. Without this right, saleswomen were not allowed to take breaks, or even, in the case of saleswoman Anitha, to lean against the wall while customers were examining sarees. The State refused to engage with Penkootu however, since it was not a registered union. At this point the Asanghadita Mekhala Tozhilali Union (AMTU) or the Unorganised Women Workers Union was formed, especially since male dominated trade unions refused to take up this issue. Finally, when Penkootu gathered enough attention, the political leadership in Alappuzha stepped in.

In 2014, women employees of the well-known Kalyan Sarees in Thrissur went on strike for this very right. Employees were not allowed to sit or lean during work hours. One half-hour break for lunch was given, for a shift that went on for more than seven hours. Washroom breaks were monitored, with only two breaks allowed. Many women also began suffering from severe health issues, like swollen legs, knee pain, and varicose veins, as well as urinary infections, from avoiding toilets that were in a poor condition, or many times, non-existent.

Motivated by the traction that Penkootu gathered, workwomen from Seema’s Wedding Centre – a showroom with around eighty saleswomen – began a movement in Alappuzha. When this protest began, the 20 male employees of the Wedding Centre sided with the management, which decided to sack the woman who began the protest. After a strong nine-day protest, the management finally succumbed to the demands of the women, and allotted chairs. However, in some places, the management became vindictive, and began to suspend the agitating women.

With the union sending regular representations across the state, in 2016 the National Human Rights Commission sent a notification to the Kerala government regarding the abysmal working conditions of women at textile shops in the state. With the momentum increasing, in a big win for the protestors and for AMTU, the Kerala Cabinet recently passed an amendment to the Kerala Shops and Establishments Act, 1960, which includes amongst other rights, the right to sit.

The right to sit must be implemented immediately, and together with all other rights relating to privacy and dignity for the workers. In one of the Kalyan Sarees showroom’s for instance, women were allowed to use the elevator only when they were menstruating. This stance of the management however, is rooted in violations of the inherent right to life and dignity of women workers. Having adequate toilets in the building, a basic human right, was also seen as a practically unfeasible option.

While the Kerala amendment is a step in the right direction, these steps cannot be restricted to the geographical location of Kerala or to jewellery or saree showrooms. Further, although the struggle to get this right recognised has been continuing for nearly a decade, there was barely any traction, thereby making it harder for groups such as AMTU to change the status quo. This needs to gather attention at the domestic level, especially considering the severe backlash faced by some of these groups. One report notes that the groups even faced death threats and casteist attacks, all rooted in a particularly aggressive brand of misogyny.

According to the AHRC, the amendment passed by the Kerala Cabinet has no way uprooted the problem – rather it has only temporarily solved it. It is therefore crucial that well-known brands such as H&M enforce the labour standards mandated by the various legislations as well as the Supreme Court cases in this regard. Meanwhile, state governments and local administrations need to focus on the availability of clean and functioning toilets for all commercial complexes, courts and office buildings, as well as constructing more public toilets that are useable for contract workers and workers of the unorganised sector. The lack of toilets and the abject lack of focus on this issue disproportionately affects women, especially working women and it is crucial that this issue is tackled with urgency. The Asian Human Rights Commission congratulates the efforts of the AMTU, Penkootu and all the workers and activists who have been working tirelessly over the years to maintain the focus on this very basic and fundamental issue of the rights of women workers.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-049-2018
Countries : India,
Issues : Administration of justice, Labour rights, Rule of law, Violence against women, Women's rights,