Labour

Kerala's Women Workers Have Won the 'Right to Sit', But Their Struggle Is Far From Over

A new labour law guarantees improved working conditions in commercial shops, but activists believe several other issues facing women workers need attention.

Kannur: “We now have more stools in the shop than we really need,” a saleswoman at a prominent textile shop in Kannur said in response to how the new labour law passed by the Kerala assembly has changed her workplace environment.

The Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments (Amendment) Act, 2018, which was passed in December, guarantees improved working conditions in commercial shops.

Section 21B of the law states: “In every shop and establishment, suitable arrangements for sitting shall be provided for all employees so as to avoid ‘on their toes’ situation throughout the duty time.”

Earlier, women employees in the state’s unorganised sector led various protests demanding their rights. Many believe the new law is a result of the workers’ struggle.

Some employees, however, told The Wire that their working conditions are still dissatisfactory. According to Viji Palithodi, a labour and women’s rights activist, several shop owners she knows continue to maintain an “anti-worker” attitude.

“We still get anonymous complaints about poor working conditions in shops, like the absence of hygienic toilets for employees,” said Vinod Kumar, a labour department official from Kannur.

Also read: The Life of Labour: Kerala Women Workers Win ‘Right to Sit’, Sterlite Calls Back Staff

Following the state assembly passing the new Act, officials from the labour department conducted state-wide inspections in commercial shops to ensure its implementation, according to Bichu Balan, additional labour commissioner (enforcement).

As many as 239 shops and establishments were inspected with nearly half found to be in violation of the rules.

‘Things have improved, continued vigilance needed’

According to J. Mercykutty Amma, Kerala’s minister for fisheries, this is a “model law” that other states can replicate

Shaju, a district labour enforcement officer, said his team inspected 31 shops across Kasargod and Kanhangad towns. “We conducted inspections at textile shops and jewellers. We were asked particularly to see whether the shops follow Section 21B of the new Act”.

He added that while nearly all shops appeared to have arranged the facility for employees to sit, the facilities were “inadequate” in some shops. He said there will be follow-up action.

Baby Castro, Kannur DLO (enforcement), told The Wire that working conditions of “638 employees who work at 18 shops were assessed” during an inspection. “Twelve shops were found complying with the law, while the rest were issued a notice to improve the condition.”

“There is a need for continued vigilance if you want people to comply with labour laws,” he added.

Balan said fresh legislative support to the employees is “making changes”, including in the “attitude of employers”. She also said her department is planning to cooperate with trade unions for better implementation of the law.

“This law proved that this government is committed to ensuring better working condition and safety for women,” Mercykutty Amma said.

Welcoming the new law, Palithodi said “Having a clearly-defined law in hand is important in any rights struggle. When we were leading a protest ‘to sit’ in 2014, a labour officer asked us whether there was any law that guarantees the right to sit,” she said.

Palithodi, who is a leader of the women-centric labour organisation Asanghaditha Mekhala Thozhilali Union (AMTU), which means ‘Union of Workers in Unorganised Sector’, believes the government showed “sincerity” in passing the new Bill.

Rajeev, the Kozhikode district convener of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, also welcomed the new law, saying he “Looks at the new Act positively”. He, however, added that “no organisation can exclusively claim” any collective achievement. Acknowledging the emergence of an alternative and issue-based grassroots movements like AMTU, Rajeev said: “No trade union can claim a monopoly of workers’ struggle”.

Rajeev also argued for better, ‘sincere’ cooperation among various trade unions for common causes. “Trade unions’ interventions in some issues are mechanical, lack sincerity and fail to sustain until having achieved the result,” he added.

Struggle far from over

Palithodi, a tailor by profession who has appeared in the BBC’s 100 Women of 2018, says among the issues faced by workers in the unorganised sector is the lack of adequate breaks and “inappropriate” CCTV surveillance.

She also prefers the usage of ‘worker’ over ‘staff’. “Staff is a weaker term in the perspective of rights and their denial. Worker is a stronger word”, she said.

A delegation from AMTU met the labour minister soon after the communist government took power in Kerala in 2015 and presented issues of female employees in the unorganised sector, according to Palithodi. Earlier, AMTU also met the state human rights commission and women commission. “Our demand was simple: acknowledge us as humans”.

Mercykutty Amma said trade unions should cooperate with the labour department to ensure that employers are complying with labour laws.

“If there is any violation on the ground, the trade unions should bring it to the attention of labour officers. The law can be better implemented with the cooperation of the government and trade unions,” she said.

Also read: Kerala – No Country For Young Women

Rajeev of INTUC said the issue is not the absence of law, but lack of an efficient mechanism to ensure the implementation of existing laws. “There are several laws dealing with labour issues. But the question is how and whether they are implemented,” he said.

‘Woman a victim of double exploitation’

Even with a vibrant trade union culture, salespersons, mostly women, working at Kerala’s thriving textile and gold showrooms largely remain unorganised.

Palithodi of AMTU said shop owners take actions against employees who get in touch with a workers’ union, adding “I hope this situation will change”.

Many textile employees The Wire spoke to said they are not part of any labour union.

Palithodi said issues facing women workers need special attention. “Unlike male employees, a woman worker usually has to continue her works when she is back home. She has several tasks back at home, like cooking”.

“Women are victims of patriarchy and male dominance at both house and workplace,” she said, adding “Both the shop owners and labour department officials find loopholes to deny women workers their rights”.

A founding premise of AMTU is lack of adequate space for women, and their issues, in traditional trade unions, according to Palithodi.

However, Mercykutty Amma, with her experience at CITU, disagrees with this allegation. “At CITU, nine out of total 35 members of its highest decision-making body are women. Women should come forward, fight and win what they rightly deserve,” she said.

Muhammed Sabith is an independent journalist and academic.