One of the most common office memories (before COVID-19 struck and sent us all in work from home mode) was often finding my co-workers squabbling over how their chairs had gotten mixed up. It would always make for a hilarious morning conversation, this eternal mix-up of one colleague’s office chair landing up mysteriously at another colleague’s work station.
This innocuous memory was refreshed by a recent reform brought out by the Tamil Nadu assembly, albeit with a stab of reality, highlighting how a section of the workforce has to suffer the painful ordeal of not even having the basic right to sit.
Earlier this month, the Tamil Nadu assembly tabled a bill that proposed to amend the Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishment Act, 1947 which provides for “regulation of conditions of work in shops, commercial establishments, restaurants, theatres and other establishments”. The Bill introduced by Labour Welfare Minister and Skill Development C.V. Ganesan sought to amend the act by adding a sub section to mandatorily provide seating facilities for the staff.
The amended Section 22-A to the Act reads: “The premises of every establishment shall have suitable seating arrangements for all employees so that they may take advantage of any opportunity to sit which may occur in the course of their work and thereby avoid ‘on their toes’ situation throughout the working hours.”
The bill was passed by the state assembly, without any opposition, in a voice vote on September 13.
In other words, with this legislation, Tamil Nadu became the second state in the country to ensure that workers in commercial establishments have the most basic right-the right to sit.
Taking a stand for the right to sit
The act mirrors an amendment in the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishment Act made in January 2019. A few years ago, workers of textile showrooms in Kerala had gone on a protest to demand the ‘Right to Sit’, which consequently led to the government to amend the act. This made Kerala the first state in the country to take a stand for the right to sit.
What does this mean for the thousands of employees of large and small establishments in Tamil Nadu?
The first thing this Bill ensures is a basic right, which should be assured by any commercial establishment. Thousands of employees in textile and jewelry showrooms stand for long hours as they attend to customers and that too without access to seating arrangements. The textiles and apparel industry in India is the 2nd largest employer in the country providing direct employment to 45 million people and 100 million people in allied industries. Given that Tamil Nadu is the leading state in the country in the textile sector providing direct employment to around 31 lakh people, the Bill brings relief to thousands of employees, especially women, working in the retail sector.
Secondly, the bill will go a long way in ensuring that the workforce employed in shops and establishments in the state do not suffer from the many health issues that result on account of having made to stand throughout their duty time.
Thirdly, it is a step further in making such commercial workplaces more employee friendly and empathetic to their causes. More needs to be done to augment labour rights as these issues are related to occupational health and safety.
And lastly, this is one more step to increase the participation of women in the workforce. Lack of access to seating is just one of the many barriers that keep women from entering and staying in the workforce for longer durations, thus depriving them of the opportunity to have a job, fulfill their potential, and ultimately contribute to uplifting the Indian economy.
Commenting on this development, Vinay Joy, Partner, Khaitan & Co. stated, “While it is unfortunate that there is a need to ‘legalize’ a right which should ideally be an inherent human right – it is a definitely a welcome step, especially for workers employed in jewelry and textile showrooms in the State who are constantly on their toes throughout the day. This move would potentially also ensure increased employee efficiency and productivity. While the amendment is applicable to employees working out of both shops and commercial establishments, it would appear to be more relevant in the context of shops in the State. Interestingly, the Factories Act already has a provision allowing for seating arrangements to be made for all workers. It will be interesting to see how employers actually implement this and whether this will be enforced strictly by the authorities in the State."
It may seem like a very small step –ensuring a seat to sit. But it is still one big leap forward in ensuring that workers in any sort of establishment are guaranteed the most basic of rights-the right to sit.