P. Viji was pleasantly surprised when the government announced a slew of women-friendly measures, including seating and other facilities, for those working in shops and commercial establishments on July 4.

Ms. Viji is the founder-secretary of the Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU), the first all-women trade union that focusses on the unorganised sector.

She was the driving force behind the
Irikkal Samaram
(The right to sit campaign) two years ago, which resulted in the amendment to the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1960.


However, Ms.Viji is confused on the takeaways from the Bill. “It says employees can sit during breaks. There is no clarity as to what a break means, whether it is the mandatory one-hour break after four hours of work, or if they can sit when there are no customers.”

Irikkal Samaram
was one among the many campaigns Ms. Viji spearheaded in S.M.Street in Kozhikode, the birthplace of Penkoottu that later became the AMTU.

It all started with a protest demanding the rights of employees in a retail outlet in Kozhikode which was about to close down in 2013. The AMTU took up the fight successfully on behalf of the employees. Ms. Viji realised that employees were not allowed to sit while on duty in most shops in S.M. Street and at many establishments in the city. This triggered the
Irikkal Samaram
in 2014.

The first
Irikkal Samaram
was powered by the women labourers in S.M. Street, though they had some help from women’s organisations in the city. The term
Irikkal Samaram
gained prominence when workers at a textile shop in Thrissur adopted it for their struggle for decent wages and working hours in 2015. Later, it spread to Alappuzha where workers of a textile shop went on strike. By then, the mainstream trade unions were forced to take up the fight.

Issued notice

The NHRC issued notice on July 1, 2016 to the State over the poor working conditions of women employees at textile shops on a petition filed by Anima Muyarath, a lawyer based in Kozhikode. It took the government two years to come up with a Bill to address the situation. Ms.Viji said copies of the Bill would be distributed to employees and managements and a public awareness campaign would be held.

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