[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.
“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.
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.