Amendment to a labour law in Kerala

Now, they can sit and serve

Print edition :

In a textile shop in Kozhikode, Kerala. Photo: THE HINDU

They can sit down during work, finally. A grave injustice, against which low-wage employees in Kerala’s textile and jewellery shops have been protesting for long, is about to be corrected.

The State Cabinet has decided to bring in changes in a law governing shops and other commercial establishments in order to improve the working conditions of employees by allowing them, among other things, the right to sit down during long hours of work.

Employers in textile and jewellery shops and other commercial centres will now be required to provide convenient seating arrangements for all such workers, a majority of them women, who are forced to stand for hours at a stretch with only a few short breaks in between. Many have complained of health issues, including chronic pain, oedema and varicosities, and problems caused by the denial of toilet breaks.

It was in 2015 that such an unfair but all-too-visible practice came into public focus in the State. That year, women workers of a textile shop in Alappuzha decided enough was enough and went on a two-month-long agitation raising this and many other issues of workplace exploitation. At one point, the police arrested more than 60 of them, after which the agitation gained support from the public and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). Eventually, the management agreed to many of their demands —the first major victory for workers against exploitative practices in this sector.

But the practice continued unhindered in many other such establishments in the State. The government has now decided to make such rights legal for a permanent solution to this long-pending problem.

The proposed amendments to the Kerala Shops and Establishments Act, 1960, also include, importantly, those meant to prevent sexual exploitation, making it the responsibility of the employer to ensure the safety and dignity of employees and to offer them legal remedy in case the norms are flouted. There are provisions relating to the security of women working in night shifts, with strict norms governing their work between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. During this period they will be allowed to work only in groups of five, and there should be at least two women among them. They would also have the right to a vehicle to to take them back homes.

Under the existing law, women are not allowed to work in such establishments between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. The amended provision allows women to work at night, provided the required safety measures are in place. Similarly, the government will amend the provision requiring managements to close their establishments for a day once a week. Instead, managements will soon be required to provide a day’s holiday to each employee sometime during the week. The government has also decided to bring security staff appointed on a temporary basis through security agencies within the purview of the Shops and Establishments Act. The definition of the term “employee” will be amended in the Act for this purpose.

These amendments, surely, will not solve all the problems of employees in shops, restaurants and other such establishments. Low wages and long working hours remain perennial issues in this sector, where the influence of the trade unions remains weak and workers are reluctant to air grievances openly.



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