In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, workers stand up for the ‘right to sit’
Her heels are cracked. All around, in a semi circle along both her feet, are sharp, deep, hardened crevices, the skin peeling off. There is pain along her heel, running through her legs. But V Saraswati is accustomed to the feeling. The hurt is a way of life.
“We are treated like machines. Not like women, not like human beings. Like machines,” she says.
Earlier this month, the 36-year-old watched on television, as the Tamil Nadu government became the second state in the country to mandate seemingly the most basic of rights, the right to sit, for workers in commercial establishments. Saraswati lauded the motive, but her enthusiasm was tempered by experience. “The owners will never comply.”
Saraswati works at a textile shop along Chennai’s East Coast Road. The shop is small, in the basement of a building, has two sales people, but one stool. Even this is an improvement on every other place she can think of. “Because this is a small shop, only two sales people work at a time so we can sit on the stool taking turns,” she says. But these moments of deserved rest are stolen, small acts of rebellion.
Saraswati first worked at a saree shop in Puducherry, before she moved to Chennai a few years ago after she was married. “In those years in Puducherry, I used to stand for eight hours straight every day. All of us in the shop were women workers and we used to rest in the toilet for a few minutes without anyone’s knowledge. The owners had strictly instructed us not to sit even if there is no customer. In bigger shops, it is much more crowded, and impossible to sit without the facility being there. But none of us can speak up because we cannot afford to lose our jobs. We need this to survive but as we grow older several health problems are showing up. We have learnt to live with the pain,” Saraswati said.
On September 6, the Tamil Nadu assembly tabled a bill that proposes to amend the Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishment Act, which provides for “regulation of conditions of work in shops, commercial establishments, restaurants, theatres and other establishments”. The bill was passed by the state assembly, amidst no opposition, in a voice vote on September 13.
The newly introduced section 21B mandates that in every shop and establishment, suitable arrangements for sitting shall be provided for all workers so as to avoid ‘on the toes’ situation throughout the duty time, so that they may take advantage of any opportunity to sit which may occur during the course of their work.
The Tamil Nadu Act closely mirrors an amendment in the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishment Act made in January 2019, when the latter became the first in the country to mandate the right to sit.
In Kerala, the struggle for the right to sit, traces its origins to 53-year-old Palithodi Viji, and an insult she bore in response to a mundane question to her employer in 2007. She asked if she could go to the toilet. Then working at the shop of a tailor in a shopping complex at the Sweet Meat Street in Kozhikode, Viji posited the question, and was met with the suggestion to “either control herself or consume minimum water”.
By that time, Viji already had a history of social struggles, founding the non-governmental organisation “Anweshi” with former Maoist leader K Ajitha in 1993 for taking up women’s issues. Stung by the comment, Viji began working on rallying support, with more and more women joining the cause, complaining of kidney ailments and infections due to the lack of menstrual hygiene and prolonged delays.
In 2010, Viji created a collective of women workers called “Penkootu”, and in the same year forced the Kozhikode Corporation to take note and build a toilet on SM street. A decade later, and all commercial buildings in Kochi now have separate toilets on each floor. By 2012, with women workers constantly in discussion around her, Viji and Penkootu began a struggle for the “right to sit”.
“While the struggle for toilets took three years to fructify, the right to sit took six years. Initially merchant associations said that if women wanted to sit, they could sit permanently at home. But we forced them to come around,” Viji said.
Viji said that in Kerala at the time, textile shops refused to let women employees sit even if the place was empty, with many developing symptoms like swollen legs and varicose veins. “In 2012, I became furious that I received a complaint that the salary of a sales woman was cut by a textile unit in Kozhikode for leaning against a wall when a group of customers were saree shopping for a wedding. It was a major trigger, and we decided to intensify our stir,” Viji said.
For her troubles, in that decade, Viji faced near constant pressure, from court cases to constant summons to police stations and labour offices. At one point, Viji says there were three cases against her, one for forcibly opening a shut toilet, and two on charges of creating unrest among workers, all three of which were later dismissed by court. There were other bureaucratic challenges too, such as the government refusing to engage with “Penkootu”, claiming that it was not a registered union. “I was forced to float another union, Asanghaditha Mekhla Thozilali Union (employees union of unorganised sector). It is still an all-women trade union working among marginalised,” Viji said.
As the struggle began gaining traction throughout Kerala, in 2014, support began pouring in from across the state, including a major agitation by women textile showroom employees in Thrissur. The same year, Viji petitioned the state government, the state commission for women and then the human rights commission. Two years later, the National Human Rights Commission sought a report from the state on the poor working condition of women workers in textile shops. By 2018, the state government brought the amendment to bring the right to sit, and in January 2019, the law was passed by the state assembly. In 2018, BBC named Viji on its list of the most powerful women in the world.
Gender and labour activists in Kerala say there has been a reduction in complaints after the law was amended. “After the amendment came into force, complaints came down by 80%. With changing times and job patterns we need new laws to end the exploitation of women,” said K Valsala, an activist working among women workers. In the two years that have passed since, senior police officials said that 16 cases of violations of the new law have been registered, of which 8 have been withdrawn and the rest are in court.
Despite the genesis of the law in Kerala, the origin story of the bill in Tamil Nadu, is not quite of a sustained movement, but a more happy accident and an enterprising employee representative of a Labour Board that jumped at a bureaucratic stroke of luck.
In the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s first tenure in power beginning 1967, when CN Annadurai was chief minister, with M Karunanidhi taking over when he died two years later, the State Labour Advisory Board (SLAB) was formed, a body with representatives of employers, employees and the state government. In the decades that followed, particularly the eighties, the SLAB was a powerful body where the state’s actions, legislations and regulations were discussed threadbare, but then slipped into a sense of redundancy.
TM Murthy, general secretary of Tamil Nadu’s AITUC, and a member of the SLAB as a representative of employees, said that ordinarily, the board is meant to meet four times a year, but has had three meetings over the past decade.
In 2019, he said, the Tamil Nadu government, then run by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, received word that a delegation of the International Labour Organisation was visiting the state to “understand the working of the SLAB”. “So they convened a meeting in September 2019 to show that the body is functioning and we made use of that opportunity,” Murthy says.
Among the several proposals they made at the meeting was the right to sit. “Though there was no movement or demand for this, we shared with the other members that we should follow Kerala’s direction on the basis of human rights.” Sure enough, the SLAB soon received a response that the proposal had been accepted and the state government was considering it. And that was the end of it until the new government was formed in May.
In July, nine trade unions held an informal meeting in July with the new labour minister CV Ganesan. “We submitted 14 proposals including the initiative to provide seating for employees,” said M Shunmugham, Rajya Sabha MP and general secretary of the DMK-represented Labour Progressive Federation.
He said that over the years, employee unions fought for the right on an individual case by case basis in the state, such as in the showrooms of The Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Society, popularly known as Co-optex. “We wanted this to be implemented universally across the state,” Shunmugham said. Two months later, the bill was passed.
The bill has brought back conversations of a popular 2010 film called “Angadi Theru”(market street) that looked at the exploited lives of workers employed in a textile shop called “Senthil Murugan Stores”, with a vicious and unreasonable shop owner.
Director Vasantha Balan said that he happened to observe Ranganathan street one night and was witness to how workers were being treated. “I stayed in a lodge on the street for eight months and brought in the workers to share their bitter experiences with me. It was like doing investigative journalism because they would have been fired if people knew they were speaking out. They had no support then and no support now. It is sad that the government has to bring a law instructing for them to be given stools or fans or water. They have to be treated with respect -- that was the point of the film,” Vasantha Balan said.
A senior official of the Tamil Nadu labour department who did not wish to be named said that they received the minutes of last year’s meeting. “The State Labour Advisory Board has representatives from trade unions and employee unions and they had all unanimously agreed that all employees had to be provided with seating. But it didn’t move from that stage and when the new government took over they felt that it was a good initiative and it has to be introduced at the earliest. Once the bill becomes an act by notifying it in the gazette, labour inspectors for each districts would start inspecting shops to check if it’s been enforced,” the official said.
Back across the state border in Kerala, Viji says she is overjoyed that Tamil Nadu too is implementing the right to sit. “Such small steps will earn dignity to working women in the unorganised sector. They are the most exploited lot in the country,” she said. But while Viji urges states across the country to similarly legislate for its employees, there is already a new struggle she has embarked on, which she hopes will find legal and administrative acceptance like the right to sit. Parity in pay in the unorganised sector. She says fiercely, “In government service, men and women draw the same salary as in the private sector. Why two payment structures in the unorganised and labour sectors? This has to stop.”