Tamil Nadu: Indian shop workers win the right to a chair

The Indian saleswoman S. Lakshmi is on her feet 10 hours a day and at the end of her shift she drags herself home to take care of her sore legs and swollen ankles. But perhaps relief is in sight.

Last month, Tamil Nadu became the second Indian state to legally enshrine the “right to sit” for retail workers and instruct shopkeepers to provide seating and to relieve workers during the working day if possible.

“So far, the only consolation during these long shifts has been the 20-minute lunch break and the few seconds we leaned against the shelves to prop up our aching feet,” said Lakshmi, 40, who has worked in the same clothing store for a decade .

“Even sitting on the floor with no customers was not allowed,” she added, asking for a pseudonym.

India’s fast-growing retail segment is a pillar of the economy and accounts for 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 8% of jobs, according to Invest India, the country’s investment fund.

In southern states like Tamil Nadu, large family-run chains dominate the jewelry, saree and clothing segments and employ women from the lower middle class to cater to their predominantly female customers.

The neighboring state of Kerala passed a similar law in 2018 following protests by salespeople in textile shops.

“This has been a long pending request,” said M. Dhanalakshmi, chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Working Women in Tamil Nadu State, a wing of the Center for Indian Trade Unions.

“From getting on the bus to get to work, to returning after a 12 or 14 hour shift, they hardly sit. There are health problems like varicose veins that they struggle with and work under constant stress long overdue. ”

P. Viji, a trained tailor, helped lead street seated protests in Kerala and founded a union – Asanghaditha Mekhala Thozhilali – for previously disorganized work sectors such as shop assistants.

“Since the women were not allowed to sit at work, they put chairs upside down and walked in protest,” Viji said during a video call, adding that she was “excited” about the change in the law in Tamil Nadu.

“But the real test is the implementation. As a union, we are constantly checking business and complaining when facilities are not available. The law doesn’t matter if it’s not enforced. ”

Tamil Nadu Labor Minister R. Kirlosh Kumar said teams of inspectors would visit stores to ensure compliance.

“We see it as an important welfare measure for workers and we will ensure that shopkeepers adhere to it,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Retail Association of India, which represents 500,000 stores across the country, was not immediately available for comment.

But not being able to sit is just one of the daily hardships that shop workers, union leaders and women’s rights activists face.

Shop assistants are often paid below the minimum wage and have to work seven days a week. Many complain about being constantly monitored by managers and experiencing restrictions on toilet use.

“The right to sit was one of the demands that was met, but there is still a long way to go,” said Dhanalakshmi.

“The fight for fair wages, adequate toilet breaks and less surveillance continues. While shopkeepers justify CCTV cameras by saying that they prevent customer theft, they are actually using them to spy on workers. The atmosphere in the shops is overwhelming, ”she said.

Unions in Kerala are calling for restrictions on CCTV surveillance of workers, which they believe is used to punish workers for speaking to colleagues or temporarily leaving their posts.

“There are cases where salaries are cut. We are asking the labor department to regulate surveillance, reduce the number of cameras and the number of hours a worker is observed, ”Viji said.

In her shop in Avinashi City, Tamil Nadu, Lakshmi said she doubted the new legislation would make a big difference to her work life.

“When there are no customers, we fold, sort and rearrange shelves,” she said.

“The managers are very, very strict … They make sure that we are on our toes. Even if the chairs arrive, I don’t know if I can actually sit during working hours.”