On her feet at work for 10 hours every day, Indian shop assistant S Lakshmi (not her real name) sneaks home at the end of her shift to care for her sore legs and swollen ankles.
- Tamil Nadu has become the second Indian state to introduce a law on sitting
- Thousands of low-wage shop workers face exhausting conditions and are being spied on by their employers
- Lawyers say the new law must be enforced to be considered a success
For Mrs Lakshmi and many other workers, however, there may be relief in sight.
Last month, Tamil Nadu became the second Indian state to enshrine “the right to sit” for retailers by law.
The order requires store owners to provide seating and let employees take the weight off their feet whenever possible during the work day.
“Until now, the only consolation during these long shifts would be the 20-minute lunch break and the few seconds we would lean against the shelves to support our sore feet,” said Lakshmi, a clothing store assistant.
“Even sitting on the floor if there were no customers was not allowed.”
India’s fast-growing retail sector is a pillar of the economy, accounting for 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 8 percent of jobs, according to Invest India, the country’s investment promotion department.
In the southern states, including Tamil Nadu, large family-run chains dominate the jewelry and clothing sectors, and they hire women from lower middle-class homes to serve their predominantly female clientele.
The new law change to protect workers ‘health is welcome but delayed, according to M Dhanalakshmi, Tamil Nadu convener of the Workers’ Coordination Committee, a wing of the Center for Indian Trade Unions.
“This has been a long-awaited demand,” she said.
“From the time they get on the bus to get to work, until they return home after a 12 or 14 hour shift, they barely sit.
“There are health problems like varicose veins that they struggle with and [they] work under constant stress. This rule is a long time ago. “
Neighboring Kerala introduced a similar law in 2018 after protests from sales staff in textile stores.
‘The law has no meaning if it is not enforced’
P Viji is a tailor who helped lead the “right to sit” street protests in Kerala and formed a union for previously disorganized labor sectors, e.g. Shop assistants.
She said she was “excited” about the law change in neighboring Tamil Nadu.
“But the real test is implementation. As a union, we constantly check stores and file complaints if [seating] facilities are not there.
“The law has no meaning if it is not enforced.”
In her shop in the town of Avinashi in Tamil Nadu, Ms Lakshmi said she doubted the new legislation would make a big difference to her working life.
“When there are no customers, we fold, sort and reorganize shelves,” she said.
“The leaders are very, very strict.
“They make sure we’re on our toes, so even if the chairs arrive, I don’t know if I can actually sit during working hours.”
The fight for better working conditions continues
Not being able to sit down is just one of the daily hardships that Indian shop workers face, union leaders and women’s rights said.
Shop assistants are often paid less than the minimum wage and forced to work seven days a week.
Many complain about being under constant surveillance by managers and face restrictions on the use of the bathroom.
“The right to sit was one of the requirements that has been met, but there is still a long way to go,” Dhanalakshmi said.
“The battle for reasonable wages, proper toilet breaks and less surveillance continues.
“While store owners justify CCTV cameras and say it prevents thefts from customers, they are actually using it to spy on workers.
“The atmosphere in the shops is suffocating.”
Trade unions in Kerala are demanding brakes on CCTV surveillance of workers, which Mrs Viji says is used to punish workers for talking to colleagues or briefly leaving their posts.
“There are cases where the pay is reduced. We ask the work department to regulate the monitoring, reduce the number of cameras and the number of hours a worker is being monitored,” she said.