When Maya Devi started work as a “salesgirl” in a leading textile showroom in Kerala state in 2012, she was just like a majority of her co-workers — grown women hailing from low-income families with basic education and no particular work skills. Now she’s a leading labor agitator, standing up for the sake of sitting down.
The daughter of a daily wage laborer and a homemaker, Devi and her brother had a quiet, humble childhood. “We adjusted our lives to circumstances and never even dreamed that we could stand up for our rights,” she says. The transformation started mildly enough for Devi, the 43-year-old mother of two who gained influence by being outspoken during meetings at Kalyan Sarees. In 2014, she helped negotiate a raise for her fellow saleswomen, to Rs 7,000 ($98) per month. But the problems went beyond meager pay.
Sales employees in textile and jewelry shops in Kerala could not sit even if there were no customers to serve. Some of the shops also do not have restrooms on their premises for the employees — a particular problem for women.
In Devi’s shop in Thrissur, women had to ask permission from their floor supervisors, mostly men, to use the toilet on a different floor of the building. “If we had to go to the toilet frequently for some reason, we would have to endure their sarcastic comments and sly remarks,” Devi says. Surveillance cameras and vigilant supervisors kept track of the time spent by the women in the restrooms. The women drank less water to avoid using the toilet. Health problems ranging from urinary infections to varicose veins were common, says Devi.
I will fight to the finish even if the other women decide to withdraw.
Local laws typically do not provide any right to sit, according to legal experts. Anima Muyarath, a lawyer who assisted the movement to change the law, points out that while Indian labor law does include the right to sit, it doesn’t apply to shop workers.
Devi caught wind in May 2014 of a “sitting strike” organized under the banner of the Unorganized Sector Workers Union (AMTU in the local language) in Kozhikode, a town in the northern part of the state. Devi and five of her colleagues traveled to join the collective of mostly women led by Viji P., and spread the word around once they returned — which drew the attention of management.
Even though there is a strong trade union movement in Kerala, it is male-dominated. Textile and jewelry shops mostly employed women for sales because they had little bargaining power, worked for low wages and did not generally participate in union activities, says Muyarath. The six employees had done the unthinkable.
The management swiftly issued transfer orders to all six women, sending them to towns far away from home where they’d have to stay in hostels, adding to their financial strain. So, backed by the AMTU, the six women decided to launch their own sitting strike in December 2014. Their demands included not only the cancellation of transfer orders but also a fixed eight-hour work schedule that would not go beyond 7pm for women, the right to sit when not attending to customers and adequate breaks. Many of their co-workers did not strike but provided support.
Gradually, they won many of their demands, and retail shops around the state followed suit to head off their own strikes. But management refused to cancel the transfer orders for the six lead strikers, saying the transfer was routine. Once the broader demands were met, the employees supporting Devi and her five colleagues quietly distanced themselves from the agitation. The only exception was a co-worker named Preethimol (she does not have a surname), who continued talking about the unfair transfer.
After 106 days of sitting on strike, the women accepted a transfer to a newly opened depot in their own town. Preethimol says she then faced harassment: “They moved me to another floor, continuously threatened me and finally transferred me to the same depot.”
In 2015, the Kerala state government amended the local law to require restrooms with adequate seating. Back at the depot in Thrissur, the management did not make any provision for drinking water or for cleaning the premises, even as the women continued to complain. In 2017, the management dismissed the women and shut the depot, citing financial difficulties. Devi, arguing that their agreement dictated the women would still have jobs in other stores, launched another sitting strike, though after 136 days they came away with no gains. Preethimol believes if the strike had been bolder, like a hunger strike or an around-the-clock strike, perhaps they would have gotten more visibility and forced Kalyan Sarees to act in their favor.
Kalyan Sarees has maintained that the closure of the depot was legal, as the High Court of Kerala agreed with the company’s rationale of needing to close it due to the recession. Now, Devi has taken the case to the labor court, claiming unfair dismissal. Sitting amid the paper trail of her struggle — the transfer order, old salary slips, petition letters to labor departments — she says resolutely, “I will fight to the finish even if the other women decide to withdraw.” She is the state president of the women-led trade union AMTU, which fights to improve working conditions for unorganized workers. They have pushed for toilets and facilities for laundry workers, and a holiday to be able to vote.
In December 2018, the state government — under pressure from Devi’s movement and others — passed yet another amendment to the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, making it mandatory for shops to provide seating arrangements for their workers. The government carried out surprise inspections to make sure the law is enforced. But that can solve only so much.
“Seats have been provided in shops now for the staff to sit, but in many shops, the women do not dare to sit,” Devi says. “They are still afraid. Many do not know they can fight for their rights.”
For Devi, it’s no time to rest.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Maya Devi
- What is the last book you finished? I never used to do much reading earlier, but now I like to read Madhavikutty’s stories.
- What do you worry about? Our women-led union has been fighting for the rights of women, and workers in the unorganized sectors. Even after getting the rights, workers continue to be exploited. We have to find a means to increase awareness.
- What is the one thing that is important to you? My children, of course, and the case that I am fighting. I want to win, and even if it is for one day, I want to go back to my old shop and work there.
- Who is your hero? Viji, who was instrumental in forming the women’s collective and giving us a platform to raise our voice.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To make sure that the women working in the textile sector are aware of their rights.
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