‘Right to Sit’: What is standing in the workers’ way

‘Right to Sit’: What is standing in the workers’ way

For the past 15 years, Mansoor Khan has spent his work hours literally on his toes, stealing a moment or two, sitting on his haunches, hiding from the prying eyes of his manager at a textile showroom in Coimbatore. By the time his shift gets over, Khan says, he struggles to drag his aching body home. And he is just 35. “After standing constantly for 10 to 12 hours every day, there is hardly...

For the past 15 years, Mansoor Khan has spent his work hours literally on his toes, stealing a moment or two, sitting on his haunches, hiding from the prying eyes of his manager at a textile showroom in Coimbatore. By the time his shift gets over, Khan says, he struggles to drag his aching body home. And he is just 35.

“After standing constantly for 10 to 12 hours every day, there is hardly any life left in your hips and legs. Sometimes a sharp pain runs through the lower back,” he says.

Khan is among the better offs. Some of his colleagues have developed chronic health problems such as varicose veins, sore feet, swollen legs and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.

So, when the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a bill on September 13 that makes it mandatory for establishments to provide seating facilities to all employees, workers like Khan couldn’t have been more relieved. The Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishments (Amendment), Bill 2021, came as a pleasant surprise to thousands of workers, especially to those in textile and jewellery showrooms,  since it was tabled in the Assembly on September 6 without any sustained campaign or concerted demand from workers across the state.

A few showrooms have already introduced the change and started providing plastic and wooden stools to their employees. However, not every employer/owner is comfortable with the idea. It is this resistance from shop and establishment owners that may increase the distance between employees and that chair.

Clearing the path

The ‘Right to Sit’ during work hours has long been denied to many working in the unorganised sector.

“Readymade textile industry is among the major establishments that employ a large section of people in Tamil Nadu. But it is still unorganised. We don’t have any associations to represent our voice. The state government’s proactive move has come as a sigh of relief for many like us, says Mansoor.

Promising to change the status quo, the Bill reads: “After Section 22 of the Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishments Act, 1947, the following section shall be inserted, namely: 22-A Seating facilities.”

“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,” it further reads.

Importantly, Section 22 of the Act deals with proper lighting facilities in workplaces. The Section falls under Chapter V of the Act ‘Health and Safety’.

A lesson from Kerala

Although the state government has taken the step proactively without any concerted movement demanding the same, many wonder what took Tamil Nadu so long to come to such workers’ rescue. More so, when neighbouring Kerala saw a nearly 11-year-old ‘Right to Sit’ campaign.

While most employees and employers have welcomed the Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishments (Amendment), Bill 2021, there is unrest in some quarters. Photo: PTI

For many years, workers in Kerala textile shops were not permitted to sit during the work hours. In 2010, the female employees working in various retail establishments at SM Street of Kozhikode came together to form Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU), through which they demanded toilet facilities. Earlier, women were forced to use toilets in nearby restaurants. AMTU happens to be the first all-women trade union.

In 2014, employees of Kalyan Sarees, in Thrissur, went on strike demanding the right to sit. They complained that long hours of standing in their workplace resulted in severe leg pain, joint pain, back ache, kidney-related ailments and varicose veins.

Taking note of the nation-wide attention the protest got, the National Human Rights Commission in 2016 sent a notice to the Kerala government seeking an explanation. Then in July 2018, the demand spread like wildfire across the state in the form of the ‘Right to Sit’ campaign. By December 2018, the state government had to make  amendments in the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1960.

From haunches to stools

Taking a cue from the Kerala example, the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) was started in 2013, putting forth various demands.

“Although we have fought for various demands, we never asked for the ‘right to sit’ particularly because we were made to believe that standing for long hours would be perceived as hard work,” says S  Thivya Rakini, state president, Dindigul-based TTUC.

The union, which started off with 153 women workers, now has nearly 10,000 women as members. It is the only all-women trade union in Tamil Nadu.

According to Rakini, nearly 80 per cent of the members are from the garment industry. The remaining are from other industries. “A survey we carried out in 2018 revealed that about 53 per cent of men’s salary was not going to the family but to the liquor shops. So women are forced to join this industry.”

Due to long hours of standing, she adds, the menstruation cycle of women often gets affected. Chronic urinary tract infections is another common ailment among salesgirls. But that’s mostly because of the lack of clean toilets.

“In many textile showrooms, one can find women employees sitting near the restroom as if they are waiting to use it. But actually they are sitting there because they literally have no other place to sit,” Rakini tells The Federal.

But such ‘transgressions’ often lead to complaints by senior staff members monitoring every move of the workers.

According to Mansoor Khan, male employees, too, fear to sit even when there are no customers around. “At times, we used to sit on the floor behind the counters. Most times we just sat on our haunches. It looked like we were hiding from someone. But we were actually hiding from our manager’s eye pretending to be cleaning the racks or stocking the shelves just for a brief respite.”

The reluctance

While almost all the employees and employers have welcomed the Bill, there is unrest in some quarters. For instance, retail outlets like jewellery shops have called it a good move claiming they were providing seating arrangements to their employees even before the Bill came into existence, but textile showrooms are not happy with the legislation.

“For retail outlets like ours, we get customers throughout the day. If they find our employees sitting, they feel offended. There is a possibility that they could think the employees are not attending to them properly. They may feel the employees are lethargic,” says Ashok, who owns a textile showroom.

Many other employers, and also employees, cited the same reason for the missing seating arrangement for workers.

Jayakumar, one of the floor managers of a popular dhoti retail outlet in Tamil Nadu, described the move as “unfortunate”.

“The industry today needs more salespersons. But we are not getting sufficient workers. So a salesperson has to attend to many customers. Because of that he or she won’t find the time or need to sit.” A customer takes a minimum of 15-30 minutes to choose a product. “So, a salesperson cannot say, ‘you choose the product and until then I will take rest’. Standing for long hours is part and parcel of the job,” he insists.

Jayakumar also feels the showroom has been trying its best to ensure that salespersons are not tired and stressed out completely.

“We provide them breaks every four hours. Similarly, we make them work in different sections in a day. If a person is found at the sales counter in the morning, he or she will be asked to work in the billing or packing section in the afternoon. This way the worker gets a chance to sit and work,” he adds.

When asked about health problems faced by the employees due to prolonged standing, Jayakumar said that the employees should take care of their own health.

“Side effects like varicose veins are common among bus conductors and tea shop workers, among others. Why then are people targeting the textile industry alone?” he asks.

According to Nalini, branch manager at the state government-run textile showroom, Co-optex, employees in private showrooms get incentives according to the number of customers they attend to. “It is because of that the employees themselves choose to stand.”

In some showrooms, customers are attended to on a rotational basis, she says. “For example, if I attend to one customer, the second customer will be attended to by a salesperson standing next to me. At that time, I can be permitted to sit. But many showrooms do not allow their employees to sit even when there is no customer.” According to Nalini, employers think they can attract more customers that way.

Interestingly, many Kerala-based jewellery outlets with branches in Tamil Nadu are reluctant to implement the law here even though they are following the same in their state.

How other sectors are faring

The problem of denying workers the right to sit extends beyond the textile industry. Even the courts in Tamil Nadu are not good at taking care of their staff.

“In the Madras High Court and other subordinate courts, the staff work standing for long hours. They need to go up and down the steps to hand over the case bundles when a particular case comes up for hearing. They have to climb up the stairs for each case up to five times. Even the stenographers are required to take notes while standing,” says Shaji Chellan, an advocate in the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court.

Chellan also fails to understand why judges — normally particular about making changes to the staircase steps to ensure appropriate height or, say, making seating arrangement more comfortable for themselves — don’t spare a thought about the problems faced by the staff working under them.

“But in the Supreme Court and even magistrate courts in Delhi, the staff work while being seated. Here, judges have a feudal mentality. Even while entering their offices, we need to remove our shoes,” Chellan adds.

There are more such workplaces where standing long hours is considered equal to hard work. A 2020 research paper — ‘A Cross Sectional Study on Prevalence of Varicose Vein and its Related Hazard Factors among School Teachers in Chennai’ — published in the International Journal of Science and Research, revealed that teachers between the 35 and 44 years and with more than 20 years of experience have been suffering from varicose vein and other related ailments. The study also points out that female teachers are more prone to varicose veins.

Yet, not everyone is empathetic towards the plight of such employees. After the passage of the Bill in the Assembly, visits to several shops by The Federal revealed that the stools provided to workers are not of the correct height. They are mostly used in place of stepladders in the shops.

Side effects like varicose veins from standing for long hours are common among workers. Photo: PTI

In a situation where providing seats itself is seen as a luxury, there is little scope for ergonomics.

“All this will change once we have strong rules and regulations in place. Passing a Bill is like halfway across the bridge. It is only when we frame strong rules that the law can be implemented effectively,” says Dr R Rameshkumar of Tamil Nadu Institute of Labour Studies.  He has his reasons to be hopeful.

Finding hope in history

Tamil Nadu got the Shops and Establishment Act way back in 1947. It was the first state to have such a law and was ahead of many Central laws.

In India, there are 125 minor laws dealing with labour issues, out of which only 44 are Central laws. The Union government is planning to amalgamate these 44 laws into four codes: Wage Code; Social Security Code; Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code; and the Industrial Relations Code.

Out of the 44 laws, according to professor Rameshkumar, about 18 laws – such as Shops and Establishment Act, the Factories Act, Motor Transport Workers Act, Contract Labour Act — come under the Health and Working Conditions Code.

“Even in the Factories Act, there is no section that allows even a one-day off in a week for the whole company. But such a provision exists in Shops and Establishment Act that came after before the Factories Act, since it is considered that the owners of jewellery shops and textile showrooms, too, work as employees.”

It remains to be seen if Tamil Nadu can take the lead once again by ensuring workers get the ‘Right to Sit’ in letter and spirit.

Dr KR Shyam Sundar of XLRI feels the employees’ ‘Right to Sit’ was long overdue.

“Many workers in the service sector work for minimum wages or even lower. They are subjected to many occupational hazards which this move will drastically bring down. It will also improve their productivity.”

If the employers are worried about the customers’ reaction, Sundar says, they can think of ‘rotational sitting policy’. “Unless the employers are enlightened about these issues, they won’t make any changes. It is the duty of the trade unions to make them comply.”

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