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Dhanya Rajendran & Haritha John| The News Minute| March 11, 2015| 9.00 pm IST Just a few months ago, Padmini, Mayadevi, Alphonsa, Rajani Dasan, Devi Ravi and Beena Sojan were just regular employees at a textile showroom in Kerala. Today, the six women have become the face of a protest against one of Kerala’s high-end clothing shops - Kalyan Sarees. For more than 70 days, these women, who were earlier employed as sales staff at Kalyan Sarees have been sitting outside the textile showroom at TUDA road in the city of Thrissur with a charter of demands, including better pay and better amenities. “We had raised our voices against the injustice meted out to us and are bearing the brunt. Low pay, no amenities and working long hours without breaks- this sums up our life,” says Padmini. Their strike has now resonated in the state assembly with opposition leader V S Achutanandan asking the government to intervene. The textile showroom industry in Kerala is a large one that employs thousands of people, mainly women. In the last few years the textile sector in Kerala has burgeoned with many new players entering the fray. The first sign of unrest came in May 2014 when many female sales personnel working at various textile showrooms in Kozhikode city went on a one-day strike. The strike called the “Iruppu Samaram” or “sitting strike” saw hundreds of women coming together asking for better facilities, pay hikes and more humane working conditions. The strike that was largely ignored by the mainstream media in Kerala also saw some of the employees making serious allegations that showrooms would not allow them to sit even for a minute the entire day, and in some showrooms the saleswomen were not allowed to go to the bathroom more than once or twice, and a fine was collected if they stayed in the bathroom for “too long”. That was a one-day strike with support from a union that was almost unheard before called the Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU). Inspired by the Kozhikode strike, many others demanded a hike in pay. Eventually, Kalyan Sarees increased the pay from Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000 for most sales staff. “Our salary was 4,000 per month. There was no yearly increment, so we joined AMTU and lead an in-house protest, following which they implemented the salary hike. The hike came in September, three months later in December, the six of us were transferred without any prior notice, mostly to different places. That is when we started our strike outside the showroom,” says Padmini S K. The employees claim that when they resisted the transfer order, the management asked them to resign saying that there is surplus workforce in the branch. But according to protesters it was not true as “Kalyan Sarees recently appointed around 40 employees” Padmini says. According to these women, the protest is not merely against the transfer order, but their way to raise their voice against all exploitations in the firm. “It is not just about the amount of work we have to, but the conditions under which we are forced to work. We are always under surveillance,” Mayadevi says. Kalyan Sarees owned by TS Ramachandran, known as “Saamy” to his employees, has five showrooms in Kerala- Kannur, Kozhikode, Thrissur and two in Thiruvananthapuram. The group has vehemently denied all allegations and told The News Minute that they were not even considering to take the six back. “They are liars. There was no protest for wage hike as they claim before December 11. The protest started after they were transferred,” says Shivaprasad, the showroom’s Public Relations Officer. The protesters claim that such transfers are not routine in Kalyan and employees are transferred only if they wished to relocate, and so they believe their transfer was to punish them. “That’s not correct. I hail from Kannur, but I have worked in four showrooms. Many others have been transferred before. Why do these six have an issue?” Shivaprasad says. The demonstrators say working for, on an average, twelve to 14 hours a day, women in this sector are paid far lower than their male colleagues. Mayadevi says, “We start work at around 9:30 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”. Another problem faced by the employees was that they were under constant surveillance and monitoring. The fear of someone watching constantly they say is unnerving and many times people have been penalized for taking a break or even sitting down. “There are no chairs or stools available and if any worker attempts to rest for a moment, the floor managers take them to task,” says Padmini. CCTV cameras have been fixed even near the toilets, they claim. “Following our protest, situation has changed a lot. Our toilets and washrooms were unhygienic. Those who continue to work there now say the condition has improved comparatively,” Padmini says. But Shivaprasad has denied each of these allegations. “This is utter nonsense. There are 207 employees in our showroom now, why haven’t they joined the protests? In fact, we are all so agitated at the mudslinging that we have told Saamy we will quit if he reinstates the six of them,” he says. He adds that the son of one of the protesters continued to work at the showroom. “Why is he still here if his mother has been aggrieved? This is a farce. That union has lead them astray,” he says. Kalyan management is in no mood to take the protesters back, but the women say they will continue their agitation. “The protest will continue till we are taken back and provided with a safe and dignified working environment,” Padmini says. (Images courtesy of South Live) Opinion: Bread and Roses in Kerala today – the Kalyan Sarees Women Workers’ Struggle, and an Appeal on Women’s Day-Eve Follow @thenewsminute

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