Salespersons working in the textiles units in Kerala have earned the right to take breaks during working hours. The move came after they launched a movement called ‘irippu samaram’, which means ‘right to sit’ in Malayalam, reported TOI.

Problems the workers face

Anitha, one of the workers in a textile shop in Kozhikode, wasn’t allowed to sit or even take a toilet break for hours during festive seasons such as Onam. Once she leaned against the wall for a few minutes and the floor manager told her to attend to the customers properly. Her pay was also cut by Rs 100 at the end of the month. “The owner of the shop, who was abroad, saw the CCTV visuals,” she said.

Unavailability of toilets was also a huge issue. “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,” said 40-year-old Beena, salesperson at a textile shop. She has battled various health problems, including varicose veins from standing for long hours and frequent urinary infections due to lack of toilets and also avoidance of unhygienic toilets.

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Women’s collective Penkootu

Women’s collective Penkootu started the movement. P Viji of Penkootu revealed that women came to complain about lack of toilets and unavailability of seating for sales staff. This is when they found that commercial building were being constructed without any toilets. The area was instead used to convert it into an extra shop or storage area.

“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 said.

Viji added, “We were the first to force the government’s attention to the need for toilets for women back in 2010.”

Unfortunately, the authorities refused to engage with the collective as it was not a registered body.

A women-led union was then formed — Asanghadita Mekhala Tozhilali Union (AMTU). It was led by Viji and helped to raise issues concerning the welfare of women working in the unorganised sector.

Meanwhile, Penkootu protested across the state. The issue ultimately gathered the required attention.

Amendment of labour laws

Witnessing severe protests, the government has issued a notification requesting amendment of labour laws.

The Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act amendment will include a clause to give women the right to sit. It currently prevents sexual exploitation and provides a safe environment, especially for women working at shops, hotels and restaurants.

K Biju, state labour commissioner, said, “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.” He was a part of many of the negotiations that were held before a clearance was given by the state cabinet.

Picture Credit: TrekEarth

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Kriti Dwivedi is an intern with SheThePeople.Tv

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