P Viji fights for a fair deal for women labourers in Kerala

P Viji is one of the 100 women in the BBC list of inspiring and influential women in the world in 2018

November 21, 2018 05:45 pm | Updated 05:45 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

P Viji

P Viji

P Viji stood up for the rights of women and won a battle that has helped thousands of women working in sales outlets in Kerala to rest their feet while at work. The 50-year-old tailor-turned activist from Kozhikode has found a place in the BBC list of 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world, for her gritty battle seeking a fair deal for women labourers in Kerala.

It all began with the formation of Penkoottu, an association formed in 2009 for women working in SM Street, Kozhikode, to press for toilets for the women. While the struggle was on, it came to Viji’s notice how women working in textile outlets were not permitted to sit down while they were at work. All the women, age no bar, were expected to be on their feet all during their work hours on the shop floor.

In Rise , a documentary by Muktha Deedi Chand, one of the women workers narrates their ordeal: “There is constant vigil through surveillance cameras, and sometimes the warning call comes even from the Gulf where the video footage is accessed, if we sit down for a minute.”

View of SM Street

View of SM Street

“When we approached the Labour Officer for solutions, we were told that only a registered trade union could raise such issues. We formed the Asanghatitha Mekhala Thozhilali Union (AMTU) for workers in the unorganised sector, and got it registered in 2015, defeating many attempts at scuttling it,” Viji recalls.

It was the AMTU that organised the path-breaking ‘Sitting Struggle’ in 2014, with women taking out a march carrying chairs on the occasion of International Labour Day. Finally, the fight resulted in the State government amending the relevant law in July this year, directing all shops and establishments to provide seating arrangements and other facilities for women workers, especially saleswomen.

“It is a huge recognition,” Viji says about the honour from the BBC. “And I hope it brings the attention of more people to the issues we deal with. The law has just come into being. It remains to be seen how it will be implemented. We visit textile shops and remind owners that if they do not abide by the law, huge amounts will have to be paid as fine.”

Viji has always been a fighter. When she failed the Class 10 examination, her teachers came home to urge her mother to send her to school again. “They said that I had failed by just a few marks. All my mother could do was cry, because she could not have afforded even my books. I didn’t say a word. Society taught me what I know today. My politics is love.”

The spark in Viji was ignited on an afternoon in 2005 when she was returning from a tea break to her work at a tailoring outlet in SM street. She noticed a lot of women, all employees of nearby shops, queuing up in front of a toilet there. “They told me they go to restaurants on the pretext of having tea or food just to be able to use the toilet there,” she says. Viji remembers being shocked and surprised to learn that many of the buildings had no washrooms or toilets. As a result, most women chose to hold on till they got home after 10 or 12 hours of work. Period!

An indignant and angry Viji felt that the situation should not be tolerated and many agreed with her. Discussions were held and there was anger about the denial of their basic rights. Eventually, it led to the formation of the Penkoottu.

Multiple requests to trade unions, the district administration, State Women’s Commission and the Labour Department did not bring results. “Some said they had to ‘study’ the issue. What is there to study about going to the washroom?” Viji wonders. So, a signature campaign was launched among workers and the issue garnered visibility. Women’s rights activists such as K Ajitha and V P Suhara joined the cause. Police cases against Viji and her friends did not make a dent in their determination.

But what was to unfold before Viji and her Penkoottu in the coming days was more disturbing and even more bizarre and now the AMTU is at the forefront of many more issues: ensuring job security of cleaning workers, community organisers and packaging workers. The union’s work now encompasses not only women’s issues. Most recently, following AMTU intervention, the Kozhikode Corporation carried out the repair of a well used by the laundry workers of the Muthalakkulam maidan.

“I have been one among the workers. I know what they are going through. We have studied inside out textbooks about labourers' rights stipulating eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure, and eight hours of rest. Where does a woman find her time for rest and recreation? For her, it is still a hard and long day of work and more work at home. Unequal pay at work place; unfair treatment at home,” she points out.

Viji is just back from a seminar at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in the capital city, where many like her, along with academics, came together to press for the rights of women workers cutting across all levels, be it at the local bodies or Kudumbashree. Surely, she is not resting on her laurels.

Women-friendly Bill

The Governor has promulgated this month an Ordinance approving the amendments made by the State government last year to the Kerala Shops and Establishments, 1960.

The draft Bill includes several provisions that shop owners are bound to make for the safety of women workers. It also includes other women-friendly initiatives, including providing seating arrangements for saleswomen during working hours as well as arrangements to ensure women’s safety during night shifts.

BBC says...

“Viji set up a women's union in Kerala and led the fight to get basic rights for women working as saleswomen - including the right to sit during working hours.”

(Description about P. Viji on the BBC 100 Women 2018.)

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