This ‘International Women’s Day’ be dedicated to the sisters of Kalyan Sarees (now onwards referred as Kalyan Silks, its parental group), a textile retail chain in Kerala, who have been continuing with their ‘right sit and right to pee’ for the last few months. For the beginners, in Kerala major textile and jewellery showrooms hire young girls as saleswomen for meagre salaries. Though the labour laws have stipulated eight hours of work that include lunch, tea time and washroom breaks, these girls work for twelve hours a day, with no breaks for washroom or any other form of relaxing. They are not even allowed to sit during the working ‘hours’ and if they do the floor managers would shout at them and even threaten them with dire consequences. Their demand for washroom breaks are met with sexist comments that include ‘attaching hose pipes’ or ‘plastic covers’ under their dress. A detailed report has been written by Malavika Narayanan, a research scholar in Delhi University and is posted in Kafil.org by the noted feminist theoretician and activist J.Devika. For detailed reading please visit: http://kafila.org/2015/03/07/bread-and-roses-in-kerala-today-the-kalyan-silks-women-workers-struggle-and-an-appeal-on-womens-day-eve/
Since 4th January onwards these salesgirls are on strike and their strike is called ‘Sitting Strike’. It does not have a common connotation as in ‘a sit in’ or ‘dharna’. Though these girls demand the right to sit, it is not just about the right to sit. It is a demand for lawful working hours, healthy working atmosphere and above all right to sit and relieve themselves during the working hours. The name of the strike however comes from a historical strike initiated by the Tribal and Adivasi people in Kerala who demanded legal rights over the lands where they have been living and cultivating for many generations. From the hills and forests, from the fringes of Kerala society, the dark skinned and apparently remote looking people came down to the administrative capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, and ‘stood’ in front of the old Secretariat for almost a year till the conscience of the Kerala intellectuals, public and finally the political parties responded to their demands. The ‘Standing strike’ or ‘Nilppu Samaram’ was a success though it was a yearlong torture for the tribal and Adivasi people who came down to the planes to strike. They sang, danced and drummed the way black people all over the world did when they were in pains or in protest. They showed their empty buckets to pedestrians for contributions and distributed pamphlets. They stood like totems of patience questioning and challenging the complacency of the Kerala middle class and political leaders and won a battle which Gandhiji himself would have loved to emulate.
(Sitting Strike by Kalyan Silks saleswomen )
‘Irippu Samaram’ or ‘Sitting Strike’ or ‘Right to Sit Strike’ of Kalyan Silk girls comes from this historical background. Kerala has always been in the forefront of strikes that demand rights of women for equal rights and justice. Though today in Kerala strikes have taken this comic turn of becoming a Hartal, by any political formation calling out for it and making the normal like of a state stand still for twenty four hours, gender related strikes have always been a part and parcel of the general strikes for establishing the rights of the downtrodden and subaltern. It started with the nascent nationalist movements that initially asked for the removal of untouchability in Kerala. This coincided with the reformative movements from within the upper and lower castes and communities, which eventually with the arrival of independence merged with the common stream of nationalism and national resurgence. Gender disparities where more or less brushed under the carpets of the discourses of nationalist struggle, by bifurcating the roles of women as a frontline fighter and as a sideline caregiver at once. Gandhiji showed this division of labour by submerging the difference under the lofty discourse of women’s role in nationalist struggle and nation building. However, in Kerala, from the rights on public paths to rights to enter the temples to widow marriages to women’s education, to right cover one’s breasts and so on more less interspersed with the mainstream struggle for national independence. In that sense, striking is not new to Kerala women.
Kalyan Silks strike of its salesgirls demanding the right to sit and use washroom is however pivotal not only in the central discourse of feminism but also in the general discourse on moral policing on women and their relationships. Seen in a larger context of ‘India’s Daughter’ documentary and its aftermath, this strike assumes a very important dimension. Unorganized job sectors are always the sites of labour as well as sexual exploitation. The feudal lord standing under the shade of an umbrella and seeing the hanging breasts of the lower caste women who work in the rice fields, sexually loaded comments directed at the coir workers, beedi workers, cashew nut workers and match box workers are the pictures that are still etched clearly in the minds of Kerala women. Though unionizing in each sector had/has helped women to escape from obvious and subtle forms of exploitation, the emerging job sectors are still not unionised; for example the part time teachers in private schools and colleges, call centre workers, salesgirls and boys, nurses in small hospitals, domestic helps and migrant labourers and so on. As these are floating job sectors where one is expected to gain experience against a small salary, unionising becomes the last concern for the workers. While many of these sectors do not entertain workers for a long time, workers too consider these sectors are temporary avenues. However, girls working in textile retail shops and jewellery shops do not consider these jobs as floating jobs. Yet, they do not unionise.
(Adivasi Standing Strike with leader C.K.Janu, college students show solidarity with touching the strikers' feet)
They do not unionise mainly because they are too dispersed and diversified in aims as workers and as human beings. A retail chain may be a district centric or it may have shops in a few districts. Depending on the demand of the locations of these shops, the girls are expected to report for work. Though there could be uniform timing for a particular retail chain, considering the footfall frequency, some shops may give some relaxation in their reporting time. Secondly, they are not inclined to unionise because the kind of harassment that they face on a daily basis automatically put them into a precarious position of losing the job if they complaint or try for opinion building. As most of these girls come from lower income group families, their salary seems to be so pivotal for the general aspirations of their families and they find it extremely difficult to jeopardise their job. Thirdly, many girls work towards collecting dowry for their own marriages! Their work and salary are so much a determining factor in their lives that having a job with a salary, and getting out of home daily become so important for their future. Though they dream future of their own, the working atmosphere literally kill their dreams as they are prevented from connecting with other people or friends of male or female gender, or even using the mobile phones.
However, one may ask why these girls are still attracted to such jobs. While the scare poverty looming large over their families could be cited as the primary reason, sociologically speaking, it is the respect that a uniformed job gives to the girls makes it so important for them. These girls are given a uniform, as per the aesthetic sensibility of the owner of the retail chain and this uniform gives them a temporary authority over the customers who come to purchase dresses, textiles, or gold and ornaments. Here the sales girls play a double role; first of all they are salesgirls so they need to be really pleasant and be capable enough to sell stuff to people. Serve with a smile is a motto. And, entice the customer by being friendly yet not over friendly, coaxing and yet not yielding, such games become natural to this job. As they are uniformed and play role in controlling, enhancing and at times killing the desire quotient of the customer, they feel a sense of authority at the cost of their own freedom and sense of self worth. In her article Malavika Narayanan writes that these girls also become sales props, a sort of living mannequins though they do not exactly wear (or ever wear) the kinds of dresses that they sell. Though this is true in certain dimensions, they are forced to live in a sort of perpetual incompetency because the kind of wares that they sell are always away from their own desires and are also ‘sold’ by glamorous super models from elsewhere. So they should be facing a sense of inadequacy also at the time of playing hot and cold with desire quotient of the customers.
(Additional work. Kalyan silks sales girls during the inaugural function of their Trivandrum showroom)
This sense of inadequacy is inclemently accentuated when a hieratic division is done amongst the work force of these girls by the floor managers or by the owners themselves, by categorising them into good looking to presentable to not so presentable types. Though a girl’s good looks do not assure her a fat salary packet as a salesgirl, she automatically gets the most precious sections in a large showroom where silk sarees, wedding garments, haute couture type of dresses are sold. Presentable girls are employed at other sections and not so good looking girls are sent to the places where not too many people visit. Their jobs are always to fold the things back or run up and down to get the materials. While good looking girls are promoted to stand at the welcoming area of the sections to entice the customers, not so good looking girls do not get much chance to hold that position. Though, I have not done on the ground research on this aspect, I have come across this division automatically put in place in many famous textile and jewellery shops. While this creates an ego clash amongst the working girls themselves, the regular frisking they are subjected to (especially in the jewellery shops) is quite demeaning.
The sales girls who are undergoing strike today for their right to sit and relieve themselves, not only face subtle sexual harassment at the workplaces but also they face it as they commute between their homes and work places. As their uniform tells the world that they are ‘mere’ sales girls, a section of the society also considers them as girls who could ‘sell’ their bodies for survival. While uniform in general command respect, the uniform of these girls (which are often heavily patterned sarees with one colour on the pleats and another on the rest of it) invite general disparage and condescension. While the morning commuting to the workplace is rather easy for these girls, going back home at night is really a difficult task for them. I have seen these uniformed girls with their plastic covers and cheap handbags standing like a flock of sheep waiting to be carted to the stables, at the bus stops and other pick up points. There too they are subjected to face cat calls, unwanted attention from pedestrians and unsolicited invitations from fringe elements from the male community that could any time turn into a social guards who wear their morality on their sleeves.
(Noted actors Prithviraj and Dhanush together inaugurating Kalyan's Dubai showroom)
Is there a remedy to this deep rooted malice? Or unionising is the only remedy? Is sensitising possible in the workplaces? Can the employers be lenient and led by humanitarian values? How could the general society react to this menace and save the girls from this ongoing indignity? How long are they going to strike for their rights to sit and pee? How long the public intellectuals going to write about them and support their cause? Will theorising and vocalising their concerns in the elite platforms in anyway help in alleviating their plights? If not who could be the right forces to make these blind law makers and blind employers to have certain kind of operations on their own eyes and see the truth? How could we help them see sense? I think it is possible; it is possible if each family in Kerala decides to boycott the showrooms and textile and jewellery retailers that treat their sales girls like slaves. The boycott could start from the doors of Kalyan Silks itself. This company or any company like this flexes its muscles because they would get cheaper workforce. But what would they do with the cheaper workforce if none is there to buy stuff from their shops. Kerala women are shopaholics. They shop till they drop dead. Death and birth, marriage and divorce, anything and everything is celebrated with buying new clothes and jewellery in Kerala. If every family decides not to patronize those shops that mistreat our sisters, then things will change. And social boycotting would eventually make the law makers bend their knees and take stringent action against the slave drivers. Can our conscience keepers of the society, both our print and electronic media negate the revenue from the advertisement of these big retail chains? Can our film stars stop endorsing their products? Can our celebrities and politicians stop going for cutting ribbons of their expanding showrooms? If we all together decide, then our girls will be treated better. Any takers?