Bread and Roses in Kerala today – the Kalyan Sarees Women Workers’ Struggle, and an Appeal on Women’s Day-Eve: Malavika Narayan

This is a Guest post by MALAVIKA NARAYAN

Drive through any road in Kerala, one sees enormous showrooms of silks and jewellery, glittering with all the riches they contain.

Who says that the Kerala model of development is slow on growth and only high on human indicators? The most literate ‘progressive’ state is evidently doing well enough in business and investment too it would seem. We are also an expanding consumer market now, willing to finally shed some of that humility and simplicity once perceived to be characteristic of us. We have what claims to be Asia’s biggest mall, and other international chains setting shop here. In Maveli’s land, there really appear to be no poor or oppressed who would destroy this image of perfection.

And if at all there is a problem, we have a record number of regional news channels who would immediately and conscientiously bring this to light so that our highly people-oriented government (what with the widely acclaimed mass contact programme and all) and our grassroots comrades can rectify it. No, it is just impossible that our Kerala could have some labour issues! We are an advanced nation in an otherwise developing country and we have here moved on to second-generation problems, or so it seems.

So what would be our reaction to the news of immense exploitation of the highest order that is facing a large number of the workforce in contemporary Kerala? Indifference has been our choice, these days. But then, we can hardly consider ourselves to the fact that oppression has the unruly tendency to breed resistance. From the depths of the deepest exploitation inevitably, powerful voices emerge, which refuse to back down or cower. When the pains of the one and the other merge to form collective anger, a will to struggle that looks the oppressor straight in the eye takes shape.

And what if this resistance arises from among women workers who are undoubtedly at the margins of middle-class social imaginations, what would their struggle be about? Would we, the citizens of Kerala, look away and get back to celebrating the holiday with movies and porotta?

This report is concerned with bringing to light the remarkable struggle by women in the burgeoning textile retail sector in Kerala. It seeks to highlight the ongoing Kalyan Workers Strike that began on 4 January, 2015. The Kalyan Sarees  is a huge network of high-end clothing shop in Kerala which embodies our new-found craving for the opulent and the extravagant. It arose when six salesgirls at the Kalyan Sarees showroom at Thrissur were transferred without prior notice in retaliation against their exercise of agency, evident in taking the lead in joining the Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU) and encouraging their co-workers, all women, to join. They represent a very large group of women workers spread out all over Kerala and working under highly exploitative conditions.

From around the late 1990s onwards, women workers began to the textile retail sector in Kerala, replacing men who largely moved to daily wage labour which was more remunerative. This preference for female workers also fitted in perfectly with the broader market trend of targeting the modern woman as a consumer. Women retail workers were expected to provide the feminine force of persuasion that would convince the woman customer and make her feel comfortable with shopping. And of course, both large chains as well as smaller retail readymade and cosmetic shops preferred women workers also because they could be paid lower wages and were assumed to be less difficult to deal with. Here were a group of workers who could be pushed around, who could be expected to be quite free of the need for tea or cigarette breaks! Neither were they likely to be highly educated, nor would they be demanding, precisely because they were ostensibly working merely to ‘supplement’ the family income!  And the additional lollipop, that these women’s bodies could be turned into instruments of further display — of clothing, makeup, or anything else — in the showroom!  Who would think that such women as these would unionise, make demands, even engage in such ‘unfeminine’ activity as striking?

Working for, on an average, ten to twelve hours a day, women in this sector are paid far lower than their male counterparts. They start work at around 9:30 a.m. even though the stipulated punching-time in big shops is 10:00 a.m., and continue till 8:30-9:00 p.m. arriving late by even five minutes results in losing half a day’s wages. Their average salary even today is around Rs.4000-7000 per month.

Wages for overtime work or allowances of leave are far away right now. Such demands would imply demand for recognition of worker-status. But, shockingly enough, their struggle, at the moment, is for recognition of their human-status, as women – for the right to relieve themselves and the right to sit. Most shops and buildings do not have toilet facilities and do women workers are forced to either pay and use public toilets or go to nearby hotels. Given that there is no time allotted for breaks and the unwritten rule is that they do not exist, most women refrain from drink any water at all lest they feel the need for a toilet break. When they do ask for such breaks, they face verbal abuses or sexually-coloured remarks. A common suggestion offered to them, apparently, is to ‘attach a hose-pipe or a cover under their sarees’. Such daily denigration is intended to kill whatever little self-respect the woman might have gained from her employment, forcing her back into the patriarchal self-identification of being vulnerable, worthless, and irretrievably gendered, an interloper in public space.

Worse, these women who are subjected to constant surveillance and monitoring are not allowed to sit down even occasionally. Lest they do , there are no chairs or stools available and any worker who may attempt to rest for a moment is immediately chastised by floor managers or owners. Some of the latter even keep an eye from distant Dubai. Sitting in their lush Dubai offices, they scan the CCTV images and chastise workers’ indiscipline’! This astoundingly exploitative demand seems to have serious health consequences for the workers, who report severe leg and back problems, varicosity and so on.

The President of the Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samiti (the merchants’ and industrialists’ joint organisation, a prominent interest-group in Kerala) when questioned about this, claimed that the textiles were not a job in which one could sit. He said that if the women wanted to sit then they could just go back home and sit all they pleased! Such a callous attitude is openly and shamelessly exhibited solely because there are indeed very large numbers of women willing to work under whatever constraints and for miserable wages, just to earn the little that they can, and sustain a basic lifestyle that every family in Kerala may reasonably expect.

It was in such a scenario that the Central Government in 2008 passed the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, a highly inadequate law but one that nevertheless became the rallying force around which the hitherto unprotected workers in the unorganised sector began to mobilise. Starting from a group of 25 women working in the S.M. Street (Mittai theruvu) in Kozhikode who got together to discuss this law and share their common grievances, a group named Penkoottu came into existence. This was a collective of women in the unorganised sector and it is noteworthy that it was after the formation of this that the AMTU was formed so as to incorporate men in the same sector as well. Thus it was the organizing of the women that gave impetus to the men to do so too.

The first issue that they took up was the right of access to adequate toilet facilties.  A signature campaign and numerous representations to all authorities concerned including the Owners Association and the Municipal Corporation resulted in the Collector intervening. However there was precious little gained materially, except the building of a few toilets. More significantly, the women gained a collective and empowered voice strong enough to act as a pressure group, and recognized as an important stakeholder in all matters concerning them. Penkoottu continued to organize for many other demands too such as access to safe public spaces by forming vigilante groups to prevent sexual harassment on the streets, taking up issues in specific shops or companies. Then in March 2014, on International Women’s Day, they declared a strike for the right to sit and gave the textile shop owners time till May Day to respond to their demands. When this was not complied with, they embarked on the strike. While many public figures came out in support of them, the utter apathy shown by the owners and the absolute complicity of the state in this ensured that no major improvements could be achieved.

The Kalyan workers’ ongoing strike must be viewed in the context of this sustained process of struggle and resistance. Representing the demands of co-workers in the unorganised textile outlets, the women of the Thrissur showroom of Kalyan Sarees joined the AMTU in December, 2014. The six women workers were punished for having played a leading role in this, and were transferred to distant places without any notice or consent. They were also prevented from entering the shop premises and repeatedly threatened of suspension. All this led them to declare an indefinite strike on January 2014 which will enter its 69th day on March 8. Press meetings, public processions, and solidarity marches are being planned in both Kozhikode and Thrissur. The women are under firm resolve that they will not back down this time or compromise on any count.  One hopes that the media in Kerala would at least now start to pay attention to and highlight this very important strike.

It is indeed distressing that this struggle of women workers in the unorganised sector has been completely disregarded by the three main institutions of state, media, as well as business interests. In politics, it is indeed high time that the informalisation of the labour force is understood closely, and that traditional categorizations of labour are rethought. Until then, women workers such as those in textile shops will continue to be ignored and marginalised even in the discourse on labour. Both the powerful as well as those who claim to be on the side of the weak will continue to trample on or ignore their rights.

The multiple pressures acting upon a woman worker puts her in a more vulnerable position and it is remarkable that in spite of this, it is women in the informal sector who have taken a leading role in resisting the onslaught on their rights.  Let us hope that Kerala would once again be able to rise to the occasion so as to evolve just such an understanding and practice of informal workers’ struggle that will have resonance in the rest of the country.

Tomorrow or day after, many, many institutions in Kerala will celebrate Women’s Day. Let this Women’s Day be an occasion to express open support to the striking workers at Kalyan Sarees, let this be an occasion to acknowledge the fact that the booming textile retail sector in Kerala is built on the sweat and tears of exploited women workers! Let this be a reminder that women workers need not just bread but also roses, basic material goods but also DIGNITY and RESPECT!

By standing with the woman workers who are striking today, let us on Women’s Day, attempt to  claim for them the sense of empowerment and dignity that the organized sector male worker in Kerala still claims, despite our undeniable tryst with neoliberalism!

(Based on a telephonic interview with Ms. Viji, Secretary, Penkoottu. Many thanks to her and to Safeeda Hameed for helping in research and editing.)

Malavika Narayan is a student pursuing Political Science at the University of Delhi.

11 thoughts on “Bread and Roses in Kerala today – the Kalyan Sarees Women Workers’ Struggle, and an Appeal on Women’s Day-Eve: Malavika Narayan”

  1. What a brilliant article to read first thing in the morning! Very inspiring. Thanks Malavika Narayan.

    1. There are hundreds of similar horror stories from Kerala, which the mainline media organisations ignore. I hope Malavika would give a different perspective to the hype about Kerala model of development by going bhind the headlines. Great.

  2. Thanks Malavika for writing this article… content and timing making it even so relevant. Find the context setting and history of how the industry and the reason for women got a place in it …..would keenly follow the progress. In solidarity. Circulating this with the Garment Labour Union in Bangalore and other groups I know.

  3. Splendid writing, lucid language, emotive portrayal and clarity of thought brought out to the fore, Malu. The emotional pitch would resonate with quite a few people this women’s day, be rest assured. It is quite shocking that our so called honest media is remaining a silent specter as this exploitation business keeps spitting again and again on the rights of its women work force. In full support and solidarity with your cause.
    Unni.

  4. Splendid writing, lucid language, emotive portrayal and clarity of thought brought out to the fore, Malu. The emotional pitch would resonate with quite a few people this women’s day, be rest assured. It is quite shocking that our so called honest media is remaining a silent specter as this exploitation business keeps spitting again and again on the rights of its women work force. In full support and solidarity with your cause.
    Unni.

  5. Fantastic article & the issue well described . Stand in complete solidarity with the struggle. Keep it up malavika!!

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