Thiruvananthapuram: The Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments (Amendment) Act, 2018, which has made working hours flexible to reflect an independent and bolder working woman and also legally assures her a space to sit during work, was passed in the Assembly on Thursday. The Act replaces the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments (Amendment) Ordinance, issued on October 4.
The law is the culmination of the years of struggle waged by ordinary working class women like P Viji, the tailor-turned-activist who had mobilised working women to fight for perhaps their most fundamental of rights, the right to urinate and the right to sit. Viji has now been included in BBC 100 Women, which names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year.
Right to sit
The amendment says that every shop and establishment should make arrangements for workers to sit so that they are not on their toes throughout the day. The amendment wants facilities to be put in place so that the workers "may take advantage of any opportunity to sit during the course of their work."“I am satisfied with the new law, but we have to ensure that it is effectively enforced,” Viji told Onmanorama.
The parent Act (Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1960) did prescribe one-hour rest in a eight-hour working day. “But it was followed mostly in the breach. If women asks for rest, they will be asked to find a new job. They were forced to stand from morning to night, and many a time were prevented from taking even a small urine break,” Viji said.
Enforcement is key
Viji first fought for the toilet rights for women working in shops in Kozhikode's Mittai Theruvu. It was in 2014 that she began the now legendary 'irrikkal samaram' for the right of textile showroom workers to sit during work. “It is good to have a new law, but it has to be strictly enforced or else things will remain as it is,” Viji said.
Labour Minister T P Ramakrishnan said that the enforcement wing of the Labour Department would keep tabs on shops and establishments. “The penalty for violation has now been made prohibitive. Any offence by the employer will invite a maximum penalty of Rs one lakh; earlier it was only Rs 5,000. Continuous offence will cost the employer up to Rs 2 lakh; earlier, it was Rs 10,000.”
Flexible working hours is the highlight of the new amendment. The amended Act states that women can be given the graveyard shift, from 9 pm to 6 am the next day, provided they give consent. Viji sounded proud of the new changes. “We have always fought for women to be seen on par with men. If men can work in the nights, women too can,” she said.
The amended Act, however, has a protective clause. A female employee cannot be put on night duty all alone. She can be employed during night only in groups of at least five employees, of which at least two should be women. The employer is also legally bound to arrange transport facilities for women doing the night shift. The law is specific about the transportation that has to be given a woman employer. "It has to be from the shop or establishment to the doorstep of their residence."
Child labour puzzle
However, there has been a minor confusion about the changes made to Section 20 of the original Act. Section 20 had restricted the working hours of women to 7 pm. The amendment extends it to 9 pm. However, along with women, Section 20 also deals with prohibition of employment of persons below 17 years during night.
This gave rise to doubts that children below 17 years, too, can be made to work till 9 pm. Labour commissioner A Alexander clarified. “The amendment to Section 20 is only for women. After the Child Labour Act came into force in 1987, the part dealing with those below 17 years became redundant,” he said.
The fact that the government had to bring in a piece of legislation to force employers to provide women a place to sit during work is a slur on Kerala's socialist credentials. That such a right has been bestowed on working class women has also called into question the gender attitudes of Kerala's hyperactive, but male-dominated trade unions.