India: shop staff win the right to sit down

One shop assistant in the state of Kerala says her pay was docked for leaning against a wall

India clothes shop
A woman waits to be served at a garment store in Mumbai 
(Image credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

Shop assistants in Kerala, in south-west India, have won the “right to sit” following a campaign drawing attention to harsh working conditions in the state’s textile stores.

In Kerala’s fabric stores, it has long been the custom that shop assistants - the vast majority of them female - are expected to stand upright at all times when behind the counter, spending entire days on their feet during busy periods, often without toilet breaks.

Sitting down or even leaning can attract the ire of bosses. One woman who quit her job in a fabric store told the Times of India that her pay was docked when the shop’s owner spotted her leaning against a wall on CCTV cameras.

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Activist P. Viji of women’s collective Penkootu says that the group’s early attempts to persuade employers to address the lack of toilets and seating for textile saleswomen were rudely rebuffed.

“The shop owners, including the Kerala merchants’ union, had said that if people wanted to sit or use the toilet, they should stay at home.”

“That really made us angry, and we started the iruppu samaram (‘right to sit’ in the local Malayalam language),” she said.

Following a high-profile campaign, including street protests by textile shop workers, the state government has now agreed to amend the Kerala Shops and Establishments Act 1960, which regulates working conditions in the services sector.

The new law “will stipulate a minimum monthly starting salary of 10,000 rupees (£110), an eight-hour day, a chair or stool, an afternoon tea break, and a lunch break”, The Guardian reports.

The 1960 Act’s ban on allowing female employees to work after 7pm will also be lifted, with a new proviso that employers must arrange transport for workers on night shifts.

Credit for the reforms must go to this “new generation of women labour leaders”, The Indian Express wrote earlier this month. The activists and the workers they represent “risked the censure of employers and the indifference of the political mainstream” to secure decent conditions for an often-neglected female workforce.

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