Iruppu samaram

Lawmakers in India grant women working in retail the ‘right to sit’ while on the job

A sales assistant arranges clothing inside a retail store in India. (REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)

State lawmakers in Kerala, in southern India, have a delivered a victory for working women there, allowing them the right to sit down while on the job. In Kerala, many women are employed in places like retail shops or textile factories and, despite working shifts that can range from 12 to 14 hours in duration, are prohibited from sitting down while on the job. Depending on the type of job, like retail, some women are even barred from using the elevators at their places of work.

What’s worse, their bathroom breaks are limited and employers are known to use surveillance cameras to ensure women are following the no-sitting rules or not using the restroom too often. As a result, The Guardian Reports, women develop all types of complications.

Viji Penkoot, the leader of a women’s rights organization, Penkootu, also launched a women’s labor union, called Amtu. Penkoot told The Guardian, “The women are careful not to drink too much because they cannot go to the toilet when they want to. They get urinary infections, kidney problems. They have varicose veins and joint pain from standing,” Penkoot said. One woman, identified as Anitha by The Times of India says her boss at the textile shop where she was working once spotted her on surveillance video leaning up against a wall during her shift. Even though her boss was out of the country, after seeing the surveillance footage, he docked her pay for that week. Anitha said she left that job not long after.

Penkoot was instrumental in organizing women around the issue — it was ignored by the other labor unions, which are largely run by men — and then convincing lawmakers in Kerala to act on the issue. “It took us a long time for the government to pay any attention to this problem,” Penkoot, who said she first began campaigning for “iruppu samaram,” or the “right to sit,” back in 2010, said.

In an interview with The Times of India, Penkoot said, “The shop owners, including the Kerala merchants’ union, had said if people wanted to sit or use the toilet, they should just sit at home. That really made us angry and we started the iruppu samaram,” or the right to sit.

Under the new labor law mandated by the state cabinet in Kerala earlier this month, employers must now limit women laborers to working an eight-hour day and provide a chair or stool and allow them to sit. The new law will also require employers to allow women an afternoon tea break, and a lunch break, though the lawmakers have yet to define the duration of a lunch break.

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