Tamil Nadu Retail Workers May Finally Have the ‘Right to Sit’
Shop workers often pay a steep price for doing something that most people take for granted: sitting down. The Tamil Nadu government tabled a Bill on Monday that mandates shop managements to respect their employees’ ‘right to sit’. This is a right that, astoundingly, needs to be defined before businesses allow workers to realize it.
“It is so basic. One would think there is no need to write a rule that says a person needs to sit or needs a break to go to the toilet or to drink water,” Maitreyi, a Karnataka trade unionist, told the BBC.
The Labour Welfare and Skill Development Minister C.V. Ganesan introduced the Bill as an amendment to the Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishments Act, 1947, by adding a provision that compels shops to provide seating facilities for their employees.
The amendment Bill in Tamil Nadu resembles the one passed in Kerala in 2018, which reportedly inspired lawmakers. Women in Tamil Nadu drafted memorandums and sent more than 5,000 postcards to the Chief Minister demanding shop workers’ ‘right to sit’. These efforts have finally paid off, according to activists.
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“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 stated.
The seemingly arbitrary rule in a commercial establishment is often in force even when nobody is looking. This creates a stifling atmosphere of disciplinary surveillance by shop floor managers and CCTV cameras. The prohibition against sitting down is accompanied by other restrictions. These include toilet breaks, leaning against walls, chatting with colleagues, and exceeding strict lunch break hours.
The suffocating rules have a veneer of classism and casteism ever-present. In order to perform subservience, employees are denied their personhood — always available for the customer’s needs.
As a result in these bare necessities often led to cuts in wages and other punitive measures. More often than not, employers force employees to stand for more than 10 hours at a stretch. This leads to health complications such as varicose veins and urinary infections that are difficult to address with low wages. Women employees in particular keenly feel the effects of the compulsion to not sit down at work.
“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. It took us a long time for the government to pay any attention to this problem,” Viji Palithodi, who set up the Asangatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU), told The Guardian. The AMTU is a women’s union in Kerala that began advocating for the ‘right to sit’. Palithodi is credited as the ‘right to sit’ movement’s pioneer and is included in the BBC’s 100 women of 2018.
Employers’ attitudes on the issue particularly incensed workers. “When we complained to officials, we were told there is no rule that says you can sit,” Palithodi told the BBC.
A series of strikes, protests, and activism cemented the bare minimum ‘right to sit’ into law. The Kerala government in 2018 passed a law that required establishments to provide seating for their workers.
“We adjusted our lives to circumstances and never even dreamed that we could stand up for our rights,” Maya Devi, a worker at a textile showroom in Kerala, told OZY. Tamil Nadu will become the second state in the country to recognize shop workers’ ‘right to sit’.