The proposed amendments to the 1960 Kerala Shops and Establishments Act to provide a secure and healthy environment for women workers seek to address demands of a large section of the labour force in the state. The changes include the right of women workers to sit during work hours, which has been a long-standing demand of those employed, especially in textile retail establishments. The cabinet has also decided to remove the ban on employment of women in night shifts; it mandates employers to provide transport for those on night duty.
The credit for forcing the Kerala government to amend the concerned Act goes to a new generation of women labour leaders, who have been struggling to get the state and the male-dominated leadership of trade unions recognise the gender dimension in labour rights. For nearly a decade, unions involving women in the unorganised sector have risked the censure of employers and the indifference of the political mainstream to demand rights, including that of textile shop assistants to sit during work hours, access to rest rooms and so on.
Their campaigns and peaceful mobilisations have forced the political class and civil society to do a gender audit of work spaces and public policy. These courageous activists also exposed the established trade unions as male preserves and called out the built-in discrimination towards women in labour laws that regulate the services sector.
Ironically, the recognition of the gender dimension in labour rights comes at a time when Kerala is reporting a decline in women’s work participation. Structural changes in the state’s economy — the decline of primary sectors like agriculture and the expansion of the services sector, especially retail trade — have created a large mass of unorganised workers, mainly women, who work for relatively low wages, and few workplace rights. The changes to the Kerala Shops and Establishments Act is a step that recognises its presence, and acknowledges the rights of its constituents.