How a women’s organization in Kerala stood up for the right to sit

[By Anila Backer A P]

It hasn’t always been easy for women to attain and enjoy their rights. When we look back into history, most of the fundamental human rights have been won by women by protesting, taking to the streets in strikes and boycotts and fighting in the courtrooms. This is particularly true for women who have fought for a better workplace that often considered women as the ‘other’ and was blind to women’s needs and other basic rights that also have implications for their well-being, dignity, safety, and in the long-term even impacting productivity. This article tells the story of one such movement – ­for the simple right to sit; where a women’s organisation and workers in Kerala’s textile sector stood up to sit. 

On September 6, 2021, the Tamil Nadu government presented a bill to make it mandatory to provide seating arrangements to workers in shops and commercial establishments in the state. Tamil Nadu is the second state in India to recognise the workers’ right to sit and bring legal dimensions to it. The law was first implemented in Kerala in 2018 following the ’Right to Sit” movement undertaken by a women’s organisation and workers in the textile sector.

The movement was spearheaded by ‘Penkoottu’ (women for each other) women’s collective in Kozhikode, Kerala, and its trade union, AMTU (Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union – Unorganised Sector Workers’ Union). Through the movement, the human rights violation at the workplace, particularly in the textile sector where women form the primary workforce, came into public. The saleswomen in the textile sector had to assume the role of mannequins, being commodified, displaying the dress materials and catering to the customers’ needs by standing during their entire work time. Despite the amendment of the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act in the state, making workers’ right to sit a legal assurance, it is not a practice in most of the shops, and ‘Penkoottu’ and AMTU are still striving to get it implemented, making ‘Right to Sit’ an ongoing movement. It further raises questions in the assurance of the right in Tamil Nadu as well. 

I was part of the movement activities after the implementation of the law in Kerala as part of my doctoral field work and gained insights into the movement through the conversations and interviews I had with the organisation members. 

‘Penkoottu’, AMTU and the Right to Sit movement

On the International Labour Day on May 1, 2014, a few textile workers and other activists – all members of Penkoottu’s women-led trade union, AMTU, set out for a sit-in and rally in SM Street, Kozhikode, Kerala, carrying chairs on their heads. Through this protest titled ‘Irikkal Samaram’ (right to sit protest), the public came to know that the textile sector’s sales workers could not sit during their long working hours. The movement’s interpreting and raising the issue as human rights violation also emphasized the women’s exploitation in the sector. It brought up other grievances of textile workers, including long working hours without break times, job insecurity, gender-based wage disparity, and several other workplace issues. 

A sit-in organised as part of the Right to Sit movement by Penkoottu and AMTU in SM Street, Kozhikode, Kerala on May 1, 2014.
Image credit: AMTU Kerala

“Is there any law that states that workers can sit at the workplace, is what the authorities asked when a meeting was convened on behalf of the labour commission when we protested for the right to sit in 2014,” Viji P, popularly known as Viji Penkoottu, the founder and secretary of Penkoottu and AMTU told me as she spoke about the movement. “We responded to it, asking them if there is any law that prohibits us from sitting,” she continued. 

This was the nature of the authorities’ response when the movement raised the issue for the first time, and it was Penkoottu’s continuous struggle that led to the implementation of the law. 

The protest at Kalyan Sarees, Thrissur

The movement was taken up later in December 2014 by six saleswomen of Kalyan Sarees, a major textile showroom in Thrissur in Kerala, under the aegis of AMTU. They organised a sit-in protest in front of the textile showroom. Though their protest was mainly focused on their transfer to a different showroom because they had joined the trade union, AMTU, the strike that lasted for more than 100 days shed light on the exploitations in the textile showroom. It addressed several workplace issues, including being not allowed to sit, meagre wages, long working hours without a break, and imposing fines for leaning against the wall, talking, and taking toilet breaks beyond the specified number. 

“There was nothing like seats or chairs for us to sit at the shop and tired by standing, we used to sit at the toilets steps when we go to the toilets or during the lunch break. We thought about all these exploitations when we heard about the Right to Sit protest initiated by Penkoottu and AMTU and joined the trade union. We were also concerned about the gender-based wage gap and thought unionising would help us fight our rights. But the textile management transferred six of us from our home location to Thiruvanathapuram where we would have to spend for rent as well, which was not possible with the meagre wages we receive,”

points out Mayadevi when I interviewed her during my fieldwork. She was one of the six employees who took part in the Right to Sit protest at Kalyan Sarees. 

Despite presenting the inhumane and precarious working conditions at textile showrooms through the case of Kalyan Sarees, the movement was not given any attention by the mainstream media but gained immense social media support. “Boycott Kalyan” was trending at that time on Facebook. The social media also critiqued mainstream media for not covering the protest and the exploitations at the textile showroom, citing fear of losing advertisement revenue as the reason. The Facebook supporters of the movement reached the protest site and expressed solidarity to the protestors. After numerous discussions, the sit-in strike was later withdrawn when the management agreed to take back the protesting workers. 

Employees at another textile centre later took up the movement to address several workplace issues. This continuous struggle led to the Kerala government’s amendment of the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act in 2018.

Digital support in the organisation and mobilisation of the movement

While the mobilisation of the movement in its initial stage took place through the door-to-door campaigning in shops conducted by the members of AMTU and Penkoottu in Kozhikode in 2014, the activists who come and go within the organisation articulated the need for the movement and why they are protesting with the aid of a blog, titled, “Asamghatitham”. It mainly carried the content of the pamphlets and newsletters that were distributed among the public and other posts detailing the essence of the movement.

The movement received immense support from activists in Facebook during the Kalyan Sarees protest. Apart from this, the Facebook pages of Penkoottu and AMTU Kerala, though not that much active, also carried out campaigns at all the stages of the movement to mobilise support. Currently, the organisation is making use of WhatsApp groups to mobilise and organise campaigns in this regard. The organisation has WhatsApp groups respectively for Penkoottu and AMTU members, and an additional group for Penkoottu comprising feminists and activists across the state and uses the groups to provide information about the campaigns it conducts. Through WhatsApp groups, the organisation mobilised its members for a campaign in association with the International Labour Day in May 2019 to make the right to sit a norm in workplaces and ensure that the right is protected.   

Penkoottu campaign
Image credit: Anila Backer A P

The struggle to make Right to Sit a norm in shops 

Despite the implementation of the law, the organisation continues with the movement to make it a norm as it has not been put into practice in the majority of the shops in Kerala. During the campaign it conducted in May, 2019 in Kozhikode, in which I participated, apart from creating awareness among the workers and employers, we also checked whether the shops are providing seating arrangements for the workers to sit and notified the authorities about those who are not implementing the law. Though seating arrangements are being provided in many shops and workers are encouraged to sit occasionally, it was evident through the campaign and the checking that most employers haven’t taken the law seriously and are not ready to implement it. The workers who are afraid of losing their job supported their employers, saying that they have no restriction in sitting, although the lack of seating arrangements communicated that the right is still being violated.

This situation further raises concerns on the assurance of the right in Tamil Nadu as well. However, this does not negate the fact that the introduction of the bill itself is a revolutionary move. But it needs to be put into practice and for that, workers need to be aware of their rights and must again stand for it. Let’s hope that the situation will change soon and the workers will avail their rights and protection of the law. 

Anila Backer A P is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad. She works on gender and social movements. Her research interests lies on women’s movements, movement performances, gender, feminist communication studies and spatiality.  She had been working as a reporter with The New Indian Express before joining University of Hyderabad. 


Should researchers be activists?

[By René König]

For the longest time, scientists were idealized as objective observers of the world. Today, this ideal appears not only somewhat naïve, it is also increasingly regarded as not desirable. Instead, scientists are expected to be active members of society and vice versa; science is seen to be in need of becoming ‘democratized’, for instance, by involving citizens in some way in the research process. The lines between science and other sectors of society have become blurry. The project itself in an example for that: It is our stated mission not only to observe but to facilitate change. And we´re not alone. We´re conducting a stakeholder analysis on actors dealing with the Future of Work. Already at an early stage, we identified a number of research projects which also play a role as activists: Fairwork, Data Justice Lab and Datactive to name just a few. This made me reflect on my own education and work experience. I wonder: Should researchers actually be activists?

Scientists as activists (Image credit: Ivan Radic)

I worked in Technology Assessment (TA) for over a decade. It is an interdisciplinary and diverse field that emerged in the 1960s when societies became increasingly aware of the risks and ethical concerns related to technological developments. On the one hand, TA’s mission was very successful. There are now countless mechanisms for this purpose: Ethics boards, parliamentary control groups, scientific risk assessment, participatory procedures involving laypeople in decision-making processes etc. On the other hand, there is still a pervasive idealization of technology as some kind of savior that should help us overcome our worst problems, while mocking TA and related concepts as “technology arrestment”. Today, this perspective is particularly prevalent in Silicon Valley and critics like Evgeny Morozov have attacked it as “solutionism”.

This much is clear: the relationship between science, technology and society is complex, diverse and controversial. There are no simple answers. Working in TA, I saw this not just as a theoretical question but an everyday, practical problem. I experienced this field as one in a permanent identity crisis. Not only because of the complexity of these questions but the ambiguity of TA’s role itself. TA seeks to provide decision-makers with impartial expertise. But if technology is not neutral, such advice can hardly be neutral either, and perhaps the expectation that it should be is wrong.

Entire books have been dedicated to these questions. The conundrum is reflected in the ongoing struggle to position TA within the complex relationship between the many stakeholders that contribute to shaping science and technology. In the end, these tensions seep into areas beyond TA and emerge in debates around the role of social science in general. Social scientists are unavoidably closely connected to what they are researching: society. It will always remain hard to navigate between being a truth-seeking observer and an active member of what we try to understand.

There have been long and intense discussions on how this problem should be tackled. Prominently (at least in German Sociology), Niklas Luhmann and Jürgen Habermas disagreed about the discipline’s purpose. Habermas pleaded for a rather ‘interventionist’ role, a perspective rooted in the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. Luhmann on the other hand, was convinced that this normative approach would be limiting as it would bind the discipline to certain assumptions instead of aiming at a general theory and understanding of society.

While this theoretical debate was mostly concerned with the narrow disciplinary circle of sociology itself, wider audiences too have debated about actual or alleged normative biases among (social) scientists. In 2018, Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian effectively hoaxed numerous academic journals with a series of fake papers, including a chapter of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” rewritten to take on a feminist perspective. Their motivation was to reveal the biases of some parts of academia they labeled “Grievance Studies”. They stated:

“Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.”

Pluckrose et al. saw their point confirmed when some of the papers actually passed the peer review process, including the rewritten chapter from “Mein Kampf”. The story was picked up by several larger outlets, including The Atlantic and Wall Street Journal. Critics were quick to fire back, dismissing the hoax itself as being unscientific and ideology-driven.

Notwithstanding the merit of this particular case, the fear that political motivations may hinder academic rigor is certainly neither new nor unfounded. While Nazis in Germany and elsewhere attempted to justify their murderous policies through racist pseudoscience, the sociologist Robert K. Merton reflected on what the underlying ethos science is – or rather should be – built on. Among the “institutional imperatives” that he detailed is one that appears to be the extreme opposite of contemporary approaches like action research: disinterestedness. Merton saw the goal of science in the “extension of certified knowledge” (p. 270) and regarded an institutional and functional detachment from society and its political drivers as one of the keys to achieve this. He glorified this detachment as a benefit that science enjoys and barely concealed his disregard of laypeople:

“The scientist does not stand vis-a-vis a lay clientele in the same fashion as do the physician and lawyer, for example. The possibility of exploiting the credulity, ignorance, and dependence of the layman is thus considerably reduced.”

(p. 274)

We have come a long way since Merton wrote this, in 1942. Today, the metaphor of the ivory tower is frequently applied to parts of science that detach themselves too greatly from society. In fact, it has become desirable to deliberately involve laypeople in the production of scientific knowledge. Action research, co-research, citizen science, are some of the concepts one could mention here. As a way of coping with the risks that science and technology have created, there is an urge to ‘democratize’ science. Moreover, it is increasingly recognized that science has contributed greatly to global inequities and more and more call for a decolonization of different fields of knowledge and practice. Thus, the question posed in the title of this essay could be countered with another: How can researchers not be activists? How can researchers ignore increasingly obvious injustices, especially if their discipline was somehow involved in perpetuating them? 

It is important to notice that neither Merton nor Luhmann wanted researchers to be disengaged and apolitical. Rather, their point was to separate the institutional function of science from that of the political sphere. Arguably, the authority of science can be to a large extent attributed to its universal and non-partisan commitment to truth-seeking. The instances where the principles of science were violated or academic knowledge was abused for oppressive purposes only serve to emphasize their importance. These are arguments for more scientific rigor, not arguments against science as an institution. However, in the last few decades, we have learned some important lessons: Firstly, truth in itself is not a value. It doesn´t direct us as a society. Secondly, science does not happen in a vacuum. The authority that this type of knowledge has gained makes it very powerful and we need to use it responsibly.

In this sense, researchers absolutely should be activists. They should care about the consequences of their work as well as for society. But that does not mean they should sideline scientific principles in favor for the causes that move them. Perhaps another of Merton’s principles can help here: “Organized Skepticism”. As Merton explains: “The scientific investigator does not preserve the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between that which requires uncritical respect and that which can be objectively analyzed” (p. 254). Sympathy for a cause should never allure scholars to lose their critical edge. In fact, giving up rigor in favor for loyalty towards a group or cause will most likely backfire in the end, as it detracts substantially from the power the research could have. Researchers can be activists but that binds them even more to scientific principles as they need to be cautious and skeptical towards their own biases – especially if they want to help their cause.