The Tamil Nadu government tabled a new Bill in the Legislative Assembly on September 6 making it mandatory for establishments to provide seating facilities for employees. The Bill was introduced by C.V. Ganesan, the Minister-in-charge-of the Labour Welfare and Skill Development Department. It sought to amend the Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishments Act, 1947 by adding a sub section to mandatorily provide seating facilities to employees.
The proposed Section 22A 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.”
Plight of workers and need for regulation
This amendment has been introduced to address the plight of employees in various establishments, particularly those who work on shop floors, who do not have any facilities that allow them to sit. They end up spending the entire duration of their workday, usually spanning more than 10 hours, in a standing position, which has an adverse impact on their health, often causing physical strain and sometimes even varicose veins.
“Considering the plight of the employees who are on their toes throughout their duty time, it is felt necessary to provide seating facility to all the employees of the shops and establishments,” the Bill explicitly mentions.
This matter was placed before the State Labour Advisory Board meeting on September 4, 2021, subsequent to which the Bill was approved. This brings to culmination the demand for the ‘right to sit’ that has been waged by civil society groups and worker campaigns in the state for the last few years.
Earlier, the Government of Kerala introduced similar amendments in its relevant labour law in 2018 following protests by textile showroom workers in the state. The Government of Kerala amended the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, granting seating rights to workers. Tamil Nadu is the second state to make such amendments.
The Tamil Nadu amendment, too, came after several protest demonstrations by workers engaged in textile and jewelry showrooms across the state. There is no doubt whatsoever about the necessity of such provisions, and other states should also bring such amendments without further delay.
State-specific Shops and Establishments Acts
Shops and Establishments Acts (S & E Acts) are state specific acts that regulate the terms of employment and conditions of service of employees in shops and establishments. Hours of work, paid leave, payment of wages, and the issuing of appointment letters by the employer are some of the salient concerns dealt with by such Acts.
Earlier, these Acts would chiefly focus on the closure of shops and establishments by a stipulated time (say, by 8 p.m.), and for a day and a half once a week. Over time, working hours and weekly offs became flexible and many shops and establishments started operating 24/7 all through the year. Accordingly, states have amended their respective S & E Acts to facilitate uninterrupted operations in this sector.
The emergence of the middle class, the prosperity of a particular section of the society, widespread use of information technology, and the retail boom, among other things, have all had an impact on the working of shops and establishments in urban spaces. Of late, these statutes have been amended several times to suit the interests of employers, without much attention paid to the interests of workers.
A typical departmental store employee reports at work by 9.30 a.m., and leaves around 9.30 p.m. Officially, working hours are shown as 8 hours with a half hour break. In reality, however, such workers end up tied up at the workplace for close to 12 hours.
Additionally, they are denied days offs during festivals and other busy months, and lack job security as they are often employed through various intermediaries. Most of them don’t even have appointment letters. A large number of these employees do not have access to institutional social security.
Employees in smaller shops and establishments, particularly in small stand-alone shops, don’t even have toilet facilities, let alone the right to a seat.
Need for national legislation
The legal amendments in Kerala and Tamil Nadu are moves in the right direction that must be replicated by other states in order to extend these rights to their workers. Furthermore, other issues like lack of access to toilets in several shops and establishments must be addressed at the earliest. These issues are intricately related to occupational health and safety.
Despite the modernisation of retail business in India, terms of employment and conditions of service have only deteriorated over time. The amendments in Kerala and Tamil Nadu are exceptions to the norm.
Ideally, such provisions should have been included within the purview of the Occupational Safety Health Working Conditions Code, 2020 irrespective of the number of employees/workers engaged in an establishment. Unfortunately, the Code does not cover these issues and any applicability is restricted to establishments having 10 or more workers.
Inclusion of these provisions would have ensured applicability throughout the country since the Code is a central legislation. It is necessary that conditions of service and terms of employment be thoroughly re-invented to safeguard the interests of employees of shops and establishments, as the sector continues to grow unregulated.
(Dr. Kingshuk Sarkar is an independent researcher and former faculty at V. V. Giri National Labour Institute, Noida. He has a PhD in Economics from JNU, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)