Kerala: labour issues

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Irippu samara: (women’s) ‘right to sit’

Sudha Nambudiri, How women workers in Kerala stood up for their right to sit, July 16, 2018: ’’The Times of India

It was the seventh day of the festive Onam season in Kerala, and the crowd of shoppers was only growing. Anitha’s feet were killing her, she hadn’t been able to sit or even take a toilet break all day.

As the customer in front of her discussed fabrics and patterns, she took a breather, leaning against the wall. Within minutes, a floor manager strode over, telling her to stop idling. At the end of the month, her pay was cut by Rs 100. “The owner of the shop, who was abroad, saw the CCTV visuals,” she says. Anitha left the textile shop in Kozhikode soon after, moving to a smaller one.

Salespersons like Anitha, and women who work in textile units have now won the right to take breaks but it’s come after a hard-fought battle by a collective that launched a movement demanding the ‘right to sit’ (‘irippu samaram’ in Malayalam).

Lack of toilets were another big problem for women. Forty-year-old Beena, also a salesperson at a big textile shop, has a host of health problems such varicose veins from standing all day and frequent urinary infections from avoiding stinking loos. “I started working at 25. We didn’t have a toilet in the shop. There were only a couple of toilets in the whole building complex, where men went too. I wanted to avoid the smelly toilets, so I would skimp on water and food.”

“We were the first to force the government’s attention to the need for toilets for women back in 2010,” says P Viji of the women’s collective Penkootu. Commercial buildings had been constructed without mandatory toilets, with the planned area being converted into an extra shop or storage area during construction, they found. “That is when women started coming to us, telling us how there was no seating available for sales staff,” says Viji. “The shop owners, including the Kerala merchants’ union, had said that if people wanted to sit or use the toilet, they should just stay at home. That really made us angry, and we started the iruppu samaram,” she adds.

The state first refused to engage with the collective, since it was not a registered union. That’s when they formed a women-led union, called Asanghadita Mekhala Tozhilali Union (AMTU), led by Viji. It raised these crucial issues for women in the unorganised sector, a place where traditional unions had failed to go, because they did not have enough members in these jobs.

After Penkootu wrenched attention and sparked similar protests across the state, the political leadership in Alappuzha stepped in. Now, labour laws are being amended through a government notification.

The Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act amendment aims to prevent sexual exploitation and provide a more secure environment, especially for women working at shops, hotels and restaurants. It will also include a clause to ensure the right of women to sit during work hours.

The labour department has also been roused into action. “The notification might be out by the end of the week and hopefully by Onam, people working in these areas will have a better working conditions and pay,” said K Biju, state labour commissioner who was involved in many of the negotiations before the state cabinet gave its clearance.

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