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Viji of ‘Penkoottu’ at one of the protest rallies for saleswomen’s right to sit during work via Facebook

After years of negotiations with the government and protesting against deplorable condition of their workplaces, saleswomen in Kerala have won their right to sit. Amendments have been made to the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1960 to ensure better working conditions and safety for women employees. They are also now protected against sexual harassment at workplace.

For the uninitiated, workers across many fields including saleswomen at textile shops, waiters at restaurants etc. in Kerala were not allowed to sit during working hours, which extended to a duration of 12 hours or more.

These conditions were seriously affecting the health of the female staff particularly because they were not allowed to take a leak during working hours in most shops. In fact, most of their workplaces did not have bathrooms. Women employees were thus forced to go to restaurants nearby when they could not hold their bladders for more than 12 hours.

The protests against these conditions started before 2010. In Kozhikode, a small movement began when women employees working at Kozhikode’s famous S. M. Street got together under the name ‘Penkoottu’ under the leadership of Viji, who worked at a tailor shop in S. M. Street. The women who protested included cleaners, sweepers and saleswomen who demanded toilets in S. M. Street, one of the busiest centres of business in Kozhikode.

Later, men workers joined the group under Asanghadita Meghala Tozhilali Union (AMTU), an organisation working for the rights of workers in unorganised sector. Viji and others from AMTU then made repeated demands for toilet facilities in their workplace and this eventually resulted in an intervention from the District Collector.

Subsequently, pay and use toilets were introduced in S.M. Street and these quickly fell out of use. Since these toilets were e-toilets, nobody felt comfortable using it. There was also an incident where a male got stuck inside an e-toilet and had to be rescued.

Poor working conditions including low wages and lack of toilets within their buildings continued. The employees were still not allowed to sit. Speaking to TWJ, Viji said that one of the biggest problems was lack of punitive measures against shop owners who misbehaved with employees.

The penalty for such misbehaviour was Rs 250 according to the Act of 1960. The collector’s intervention made it 5000-10000 ‘but such a small amount is nothing for shop owners who would get as much they could, just from their charity boxes that they keep at their counters.’ explained Viji. Now, the ruling Left government has raised the amount  to 75000-Rs 1 Lakh, Viji said, proudly.

In March 2014, Penkoottu launched a strike for saleswomen’s right to sit when the conditions of work did not improve. In December, 2014, women employees of Kalyan Sarees, Thrissur joined AMTU. These women had gone on strike in Thrissur, demanding the right to sit during work. The big textile chain owners responded by transferring these women without notice. Many large and small textile workers reported that their working conditions were equally oppressive and got together under AMTU to fight for their rights.

Shop owners retaliated by mocking women employees saying that being a salesperson required them to stand for 12 hours or more. The women were told to sit at home if they wanted to sit at all. Sexually suggestive remarks were also made when they sought permission to urinate. Some were asked to attach a pipe under their sarees if they wanted to take a leak that badly. Saleswomen were also forced to resort to sitting inside trial rooms if they wanted to sit since the rest of the shop was under surveillance.

The new amendments now allow women to sit during work hours. The cabinet also approved the law asserting thatt shop owners can only employ women employees from 9 PM to 6 AM only if they are with a group of at least five employees, two of whom should be women.

Despite the good news, Viji claims that she wants to be sure that there are no loopholes within the amendments. ‘We have not seen it yet,’ she said, explaining that different newspapers have different definitions of the Bill and hence she wanted clarification regarding certain terms. ‘Some reports say that employees will be allowed to sit during ‘breaks’ and some others say that they will be allowed to sit while working,’ sayus Viji.

The problem with ‘breaks’ is that even when the Act provides for a break of an hour after every four hours of work, this rule has never been followed by any. It is also not clear if the amendents mean that workers can sit when they don’t have customers. ‘There should be clarity in this matter,’ she said recalling an incident from their early years of protest.  Once, when they went to shop owners’ to ask for their right to sit, they asked the women if there was any law that said that they should be ‘allowed’ to it. In response, the women had to ask if there was any law that said otherwise. Even today, in debates on news channels, shop owners ask Viji why women can’t stand and work for more than 12 hours when a bus conductor does the same (Bus conductors have a seat reserved for them in buses)

When asked why she decided to fight for a saleswomen’s right to sit when she herself was not affected by it in her workplace, she said, ‘But I could see the injustice!’ almost indignantly.

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