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Tamil Nadu’s shop and showroom workers get legal ‘right to sit’

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After Kerala, Tamil Nadu has become the second state in India to mandate seemingly the most basic of rights – the right to sit – for salespersons in shops and commercial establishments during work hours. The move is expected to benefit thousands of employees of large and small shops, particularly those working in textile and jewellery showrooms.

On 6 September, state labour welfare minister C V Ganesan tabled a Bill in the state assembly to amend the Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishments Act, 1947 to make it mandatory for establishments to provide seating arrangements in the workplace. The bill was passed by the assembly, with no opposition, in a voice vote on 13 September.

Photograph: iStock/urbancow

The proposed Section 22-A to the Act reads: “The premises of every establishment shall have suitable seating arrangements for all employees so that they may take advantage of any opportunity to sit which may occur in the course of their work and thereby avoid ‘on their toes’ situation throughout the working hours.”

The Bill states that people employed in shops and establishments in the state “are made to stand throughout their duty time”, resulting in various health issues.

“Considering the plight of the employees who are on their toes throughout their duty time, it is felt necessary to provide seating facility to all the employees of the shops and establishments,” it says.

The duty for employers in shops and relevant establishments to provide seating arrangements for employees was first proposed, and unanimously approved, at a meeting of Tamil Nadu’s State Labour Advisory Board in September 2019.

Many large multi-department showrooms run by leading textile and jewellery brands in the state presently do not provide chairs or stools for salespersons to sit during work hours. Also, many workers at these establishments have been instructed by their employers to remain standing even if there are no customers. However, workers are usually reluctant to complain about the ban on sitting as they fear losing their jobs.

Regulated toilet breaks
A ban on sitting down is not the only arbitrary rule owners of these establishments impose on workers. Strictly regulated toilet breaks, bans on leaning against walls or chatting with colleagues, and punishments for exceeding strict lunch break times are some of the other rules that contribute to poor working conditions and have a negative impact on workers’ wellbeing.

“These are often accompanied by low wages and practically no benefits,” say labour rights activists.

As a result, salespersons are often forced to stand for up to 10 hours or more attending to customers. Many develop arthritis, knee problems, varicose veins, urinary tract infections, water retention in the lower limbs and blood pressure over the years.

The impact of the ban on standing and other strict workplace rules in the textile industry was the focus of Tamil director Vasanthabalan’s 2010 feature film, Angaadi Theru (Market Street).

A few years ago Kerala introduced a similar ‘right to sit’ after workers in the state’s textile showrooms launched a campaign calling for a change in the law. This prompted the government to amend the Kerala Shops and Establishments Act in 2018 to require employers to provide seating arrangements for shop staff.

Salespersons in Kerala are now supplied with stools or chairs to sit on when they are not attending to customers. On average, a typical salesperson in a shop in India works for nine to 12 hours, standing all the time.

Right to sit struggle in Kerala
However, the struggle for the legal right to sit in Kerala was not easy. It began in 2007 when 53-year-old Palithodi Viji asked her employer – who owned a shop in a commercial complex on SM Street in Kozhikode – if she could go to the toilet. Her employer said that she should “either control herself or consume minimum water”.

Stung by the insensitive comment, Viji began rallying support for the cause of providing adequate toilet facilities for female shop workers. Many women workers, complaining of kidney ailments and urinary tract infections, joined her campaign.

In 2010, Viji created a women’s collective called Penkootu, and in the same year forced the Kozhikode Corporation to take note and build a toilet for female shop workers on SM Street. By 2012, Viji and Penkootu began a struggle for the right to sit.

Penkootu’s initial attempts to persuade employers to address the lack of toilets and seating for textile saleswomen were snubbed. “Initially, merchant associations, including the Kerala merchants’ union, had said that if people wanted to sit or use the toilet, they should stay at home,” Viji said.

Viji intensified her campaign after receiving a complaint that the wages of a saleswoman at a textile unit in Kozhikode had been cut because she leaned against a wall while a group of customers were shopping for sarees for a wedding.

In 2014, Viji petitioned the Kerala state government, Kerala’s State Commission for Women and the National Human Rights Commission for a ‘right to sit’ for shop workers. Two years later, the National Human Rights Commission requested a report from Kerala’s government on the poor working conditions of female workers in textile shops.

By 2018, the state government brought forward a legal amendment for the right to sit, and in January 2019 the law was passed by the state assembly. Viji’s contribution to the right to sit struggle in Kozhikode received recognition from the UK’s BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) when she was named as one of three Indians in the BBC 100 Women list.

After Tamil Nadu’s move to introduce a right to sit, Vasanthabalan praised M.K. Stalin, the state’s chief minister, and other ministers, for realising his film’s “dream”. Writing on his Facebook page, he reminded his followers of the dangers of swollen varicose veins – mostly found in the lower portion of the legs – affecting textile workers due to long hours of standing.

No punishment clause for employers
However, the Tamil Nadu legal directive on providing and allowing seating does not include a punishment clause for shop owners who violate the rule.

Activists say the progressive amendments on the right to sit by the Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments should encourage the introduction of national laws on workplace standards. They are calling for national legislation to protect the fundamental rights of workers because access to adequate seating and toilets is essential for protecting workers’ health, safety and welfare. These types of legal rights for workers and duties on employers should have been included in the new Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020, they argue.

At present, the Code only applies to establishments with more than 10 employees.

Citing the case of the UK, labour rights activists point out that one of the key requirements of the UK’s Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 is that employers “must provide seats for workers who have to stand to carry out their work, if the type of work gives them an opportunity to sit from time to time”.

India’s labour rights campaigners say the UK’s workplace health and safety rules are effective because employers have a legal duty to consult their workers on the health and safety hazards they face and must take account of workers’ views when deciding on the best ways of managing the associated risks.

The Indian campaigners also warn that if the right to sit law in Tamil Nadu is to be effective, it needs to be implemented with penalties for employers who fail to provide seats and fail to allow shop workers to sit when the opportunity arises.

However, the law is a start in righting the wrongs around the working conditions of millions of salespersons, add the activists.

NEWS


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