On the occasion of International Women’s Day, which arose to mark struggles of women workers for better working conditions and wages over a century ago, People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) expresses its solidarity with the ongoing strike of women sales attendants of Kalyan Sarees in Thrissur, Kerala. This under-reported and remarkable strike which started on 31 December 2014 has entered its ninth week now. The women on strike are demanding humane and fair working conditions. An indication of the conditions of work is the fact that the strike is referred to as ‘Sitting Strike’ ('Irikkal samaram') – referring to one of their central demands for the right to sit, denied to them through their 10-12 hour working day.
The present strike was in response to the decision of the management of a Kalyan Sarees showroom in Thrissur to abruptly transfer 6 women sales attendants. These workers were prevented from entering the building on 16 December 2014 and were told that they had been transferred to distant places, to showrooms owned by the well-known Kalyan Group of companies. All six women targeted because they were vocal and articulate and had led other workers in the showroom to organise and raise demands for fair working conditions. The management’s action was clearly aimed at attacking the workers’ right to organise themselves and assert their rights. Instead of caving in to bullying tactics of the management, the six workers have proceeded to strike work, by sitting outside the showroom.
Significantly, many women workers of the showroom (including these 6) had joined the Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU). Apart from fighting for the 'right to sit', the AMTU has also been taking up other unfair practices that are common across the sector. These include extremely limited toilet breaks, severe monetary deductions from wages for any extra breaks (e.g. out of a total salary of Rs. 5000-7500 per month, deductions could amount to Rs. 1500-Rs.3000 even if women had medical problems and needed to use the toilet more frequently) and so on. Sales attendants are kept under strict surveillance by owners in smaller shops and by cameras in larger showrooms and are prevented from sitting down, even occasionally. Smaller stores often lack toilets and women workers are forced to spend money at public toilets or those in nearby hotels. Many try to avoid using these paid facilities by not drinking water. They are also constantly subjected to verbal abuses and sexually suggestive remarks for requesting toilet breaks. Standing for long hours without adequate toilet breaks has led to numerous issues affecting the workers’ physical and mental well-being.
Since the late 1990s, women sales attendants have been increasingly employed by textile and other showrooms as they are seen as pliable labour who are ready to work for paltry wages, not ask for compensation for overtime work and, unlikely to unionise. It is significant that even the low wages that the women sales attendants were getting at the time of the strike were won as a result of earlier struggles. Sadly, the issues of fair working conditions raised by the present strike have remained unaddressed by established trade unions and by state authorities. Consequently, managements, like those at Kalyan Sarees, blatantly violate guidelines of Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act and are never penalized by the Labour Department. The remarkable ‘sitting strike’ has drawn attention to the neglect and exploitation of women workers in the informal sector and has shown how these workers have challenged the management by persisting in their demands.
PUDR urges that the crucial demands raised by the Kalyan Sarees’ and other workers on strike for the 69th day, this Women’s Day, be addressed immediately.
Megha Bahl and Sharmila Purkayastha