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Mannequins at Work

Salesgirls in Kerala’s Textile Sector

Anima Muyarath ( is an advocate and a fellow at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. V Roopak ( is a PhD scholar at the Centre for International Legal Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Displaying mannequins in showrooms is a business strategy adopted by all kinds of textile retailers for the promotion of their business. In the modern competitive world, women workers employed as salesgirls in retail textile showrooms are also functioning like living automatons. The fundamental rights and labour rights violations faced by salesgirls employed in the textile retail sector in Kerala are examined, and the genesis of sitting strikes (right to sit) that erupted in Kerala is mapped.

Mannequins symbolise the changing consumer behaviour, fashion trends and marketing methods. With the advent of the window- shopping culture, mannequins are installed to demonstrate textile retail products, and thereby attract customers towards the shops (Morris 2015; Leslie 2005). Displaying mannequins in the showrooms is a business strategy adopted by all kinds of textile retailers for the promotion of their business. But in the modern competitive world, women workers employed as showroom sales executives (commonly called as sales women or salesgirls) in the retail textile showrooms are functioning like mannequins for the promotion of business. They are also employed with a purpose of making the shops more “attractive” and have to stand like mannequins throughout the working hours.

The feminisation of the retail sector took place in modern industrial countries like the United States (US), Germany, Britain and France in the 1920s, where it was projected as the success of capitalist consumerism. The Soviets followed in the 1930s in order to promote the non-capitalist, socialist retailing and the “Soviet trade” (Randall 2004). In the 21st century, as the capitalist forms of production expanded to many developing countries where the labour rights were weak, the system forced the workers to work like machines. The salesgirls in the retail sector have also become “living automatons”1 in the workplace where they have to stand the whole day, devoid of breaks and basic amenities. This has resulted in the deterioration of health conditions of the workers in the retail sector.

This global phenomenon has easily reached the market of Kerala, a consumer economy relying on gulf remittances.2 The consumerist culture seen in Kerala can be understood from its high social indicators, higher awareness levels regarding products and higher exposure to promotional advertisements because of the wider access to visual media and technology. Apart from this, there is a high density of retail shops per kilometre (urban and rural put together).3 This study tries to understand the fundamental and labour rights violations faced by the salesgirls employed in the textile retail sector in Kerala. It will also try to map the genesis of sitting strikes (right to sit) that erupted in Kerala. This study was conducted within the limits of Calicut City Corporation in the district of Kozhikode in Kerala.

Feminisation of the Retail Sector

From the 1990s onwards, as a result of the liberalisation of trade, more women workers from the industrial reserve army were drawn to the services sector of the country and a trend of rapid feminisation of labour occurred in the services sector. Feminisation of the labour force can be understood by an increase in the female workforce participation rate compared to men as well as women taking over some jobs traditionally done by men (Standing 1989). Though the number of women in India’s workforce fell from 28.7% in 2004–05 to 21.9% in 2011–12 according to the 2011–12 report of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the feminisation of informal sector continued during this period. The NSSO report clearly shows that there is a significant increase in the number of casual workers and a decrease in the number of regular workers.

There are plenty of reasons for the traders to prefer women over men. First and foremost, women workers can be paid lesser than men. As per the Global Wage Report 2016–17 released by the International Labour Organization (ILO), gender wage disparity in India is among the worst in the world. According to the statistics by Monster Salary Index in 2016, a regularly employed female worker earned 27% lesser than a male employee. Besides, the cheaper availability of female labour, the sector is not unionised as well (Deshpande 1992). The ILO report also indicates that

the gender pay gap is smallest (8 per cent) in the group of countries where the collective bargaining rate is at least 80 per cent, and widest in countries with weak collective bargaining and no or very low minimum wages. (ILO Global Wage Report 2016: 31)

The retail sector, which is an informal sector, is highly unorganised, and hence is filled by the female workforce.

The reason behind the feminisation of labour in the textile retail sector of Kerala is also not different. In textile shops of Kerala, women started replacing men at the workspace and more women were hired to big textile establishments in the 1990s. All over the world, female sales executives are generally considered to be more polite than their male counterparts. Let us take the example of the Soviet Union, where in the 1930s a feminisation of retail sector occurred. They found that the “feminine knowledge” and maternal nature of female workers helped in promotion of sales. Both male and female retail employees were expected to adopt positive feminine traits of attentive service. This exaltation of femininity actually resulted in gender segregation and gender hierarchy in labour force (Randall 2004). In Kerala’s retail trade, instead of exalting femininity of employees, the emotional labour of female retail employees is undervalued. The wage of the female worker is considered only as a supplementary income, despite the fact that many of them are the sole breadwinners of their families.

According to the statistics collected from the district labour office, 897 textile shops in Kozhikode city are registered under the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments (KSCE) Act, 1960, among which 14 shops come under the category of big establishments. All the shops are supposed to be registered under the act, but there are shops that are functioning without registration. Legal action has been taken against two shops for the non-compliance of the registration rules. As per the records of district labour department, the total number of textile retail employees of Kozhikode city is 2,874, out of which 1,114 are women. The number of workers includes managers and supervisors predominantly male. The estimate from the labour department gives only the number of recognised workers.

Right to Sit and Occupational Health

Shops and commercial establishments are classified as small, medium and big4 under the KSCE (Amendment) Act, 2015. The working conditions vary in small, medium and big establishments. Unlike small and medium establishments, the big textile establishments are more organised, and most of the stringent rules of service laid down by the employer are violative of the employee’s right to life and contrary to the provisions of labour laws. The absence of any facilities to sit while at work is a major issue faced by the salesgirls in general, and this is a severe problem in most of the textile establishments.

The employees in sales are not allowed to sit and rest even during their spare time. They are not provided with sitting arrangements like stools or chairs in the workspace and there are strict orders to not to sit during working hours. They are also deprived of rest breaks and they are only allowed half an hour for lunch break in the whole 12 hours of work time. This time period is not enough to take rest considering the strenuous and demanding working conditions. The societal conditions are such that the male employees can take rest once they get back home after a whole day of work. Meanwhile, this is not possible for women as they have to do the household chores at home as well. In a major textile establishment in Kozhikode, where more than 200 women are employed in sales, a sign is put up in the washroom: “You are not supposed to sit here without the permission of the supervisor.”

On the floor of big textile shops the employees are under constant surveillance, cameras are set up everywhere, therefore there is no possibility to sit on the floor without being noticed. Due to the prolonged standing in the workspace many of the salesgirls suffer from varicose veins even before reaching their middle age. Prolonged standing at the work involves high risk for the occurrence of varicose veins (Tuchsen 2000). The risk ratio in women is higher than that in men. Though the illness of varicose veins is a common health problem faced by women workers, it has not yet been incorporated as an occupational health hazard under the third schedule of the Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948. Standing for a long time can have adverse effect on women’s reproductive health as well.5 It can result in low birth weight, pre-term birth, spontaneous abortion, etc (Burdorf et al 2006).

Another major problem faced by the salesgirls is the lack of toilet facilities and the rules which restrict the timing of using these basic amenities. In most of the establishments surveyed in Kozhikode, during the working hours, the women employees need to get permission from the floor managers to use toilet facilities. As the “punching” system is also prevalent in most of the big textile establishments, the time spent in the toilets will be recorded. In many cases, if they had used extra time, beyond a permissible limit, they would be verbally harassed and the floor managers may pass obscene comments on them.

Lack of toilet facilities is a major crisis faced by women workers of small and medium textile establishments. Even if these facilities are available, they might not be situated in a reasonable proximity of the workspace. According to the municipal building rules, toilets are mandatory and the building plans will be approved only if a space for toilet is indicated in the plan.6 But as soon as the owners of the building get permissions for their construction plans in which the toilet facilities are indicated, they would convert that space also into some tailor shop or storeroom. The women workers have to depend on nearby hotels for their primary needs. A Sulabh toiletis the only public service available which is located at the Sweet Meat Street (commonly known as the SM Street), one of the oldest market areas in Kozhikode, that too with poor sanitation standards.

In certain big textile establishments in Kozhikode, there are “customer only” restrooms, but employees are not allowed to use them. At the SM Street there is such a big textile establishment with a customer only restroom, where more than hundred women are employed.

It shows the gravity of the situation and the total disregard to the rights of the women workers. In the tropical climatic conditions like that of Kozhikode, with soaring temperatures and high-level humidity, the closed workspace environments demand more intake of water. Lack of toilet facilities and strict timings force women workers to eat and drink less, which in turn, would affect their health through malnutrition, dehydration and the lack of adequate fluid replacements. It results in health situations like cramps, rashes and heat strokes (Tilley et al 2013). The holding up of urine in the bladder and refraining from drinking water will result in urogenital infections like urinary tract infections, burning sensation, oedema or swollen legs and kidney diseases. While men also face such problems due to lack of toilet spaces, they often resort to public places to relieve themselves which women cannot do owing to the societal moralities and susceptibility to sexual assaults (Laryea et al 2008).

The Indian labour laws contain explicit provisions regarding the “right to sit,” but these are not applicable to the workers of shops and commercial establishments. As per the Factories Act of 1948, even if the nature of work demands standing, proper seating arrangements should be provided in the workspace so that the employees can take any opportunity that may occur in their course of work to sit.8 Many developed countries have provisions in their labour code on the right to sit that is applicable to workers of all sectors. For example, in the US, pharmacist Nikeya Kilby, who worked in a pharmacy in California,9 filed a suit, seeking compensation against her former employer CVS Pharmacy for not permitting her to sit while working. The court held that the employer violated the provisions of the California Labor Code on the workers’ right to sit. The provision is similar to the “seating facilities” provision of the Indian Factories Act.10 The KSCE Act, 1960 does not have any such provisions. On the other hand, while the KSCE Act, 1960 talks about the interval for rest, it does not mention any provision of facilities for rest or of facilities like urinals and restrooms. A provision for restrooms was inserted only in the 2015 amendment to the act, which was brought in by the government after the struggles led by women workers in the retail sector.11

Discriminatory Workspaces

In textile establishments, especially in big establishments, most of the employees in sales are women. The gender stereotyping of the job of sales itself can be considered as a gender-based discrimination.12 At the same time, men occupy the managerial and high-end positions in most of the textile establishments. Apart from the cameras in big establishments, there are male supervisors and floor managers to control and monitor salesgirls. A gender hierarchy exists in the labour force.

The women in sales hardly get promoted to the post of floor managers and supervisors. Even if they get promoted to a managerial position, there are chances to get de-promoted to their earlier position citing lack of efficiency. This often leads to an emotional trauma that forces them to resign from the job. The management takes this as an opportunity to escape from providing retrenchment benefits to the workers. By placing men in managerial positions, the management takes the male employees into their confidence and this gender hierarchy reduces the chance of unionisation in the sectors.

While health and comfort levels should be the criteria to choose a dress code in a workspace, the salesgirls in big textile establishments are mandated to wear a sari which is highly uncomfortable for daily use. It restraints the movement of a person compared to other clothing. The general trend suggests that salwar kameez or churidar are the preferred attire of choice for many working women across India because they are convenient to travel in the overcrowded public transportations and considering the soaring temperatures, are more comfortable than wearing sari. On the other hand, sari being a traditional outfit, women are obliged to carry culture and tradition in their daily wear. Sari is also considered to be a signifier of a woman’s moral virtue. As a result of all this, for a salesgirl, draping sari in the morning is more important than having breakfast. The purpose of making sari as the uniform of salesgirls is to keep the textile showrooms more attractive for the customers; this itself is a case of objectification of women’s bodies. While this is another marketing strategy of the textile employers, the price of the uniform is deducted from the salary of the workers.

The employers of big textile shops set the salary scale very low and make provisions for incentives. The workers who increase the sales of the shop are encouraged with monetary incentives. These monetary incentives create competition among workers and they work hard to achieve the incentive. The salesgirls could achieve a sufficient salary only if they increase the sales of the shop as much as they can. The unhealthy competition which arises out of this situation ruins the healthy relationship between the workers. On the one hand, the “incentive” increases the sales of the shop, and on the other, it blocks the unity among the workers. Some of the textile managements impose fine on workers if they talk to each other during the working hours. The employers use some workers as spies against others as well. These spies are very vigilant and they report any trade union campaigns or any other campaigns among workers which may be against the employer.

Underpaid and Overworked

According to law, the minimum wages of the unorganised workers should be renewed at least once in every five years.13 It is the responsibility of the state government to renew the minimum wages on time. The lapse from the side of the state government to take adequate steps to safeguard the labour rights of the workers makes the lives of workers miserable in the unorganised sector. It took more than seven years for the state government to renew the minimum wages of the unorganised sector workers. Availability of cheap labour is one of the main reasons for employers to prefer women for this job. Workers are also entitled to get overtime wages if they work for more than eight hours a day. Managements are not even complying with the minimum wage rules, which are assured, when they fix the salary of the workers. In fact, the salesgirls of textile retail sector work for more than 10 hours a day without being paid minimum and overtime wages. The physical and emotional labour of the women workers are not considered either by the managements or by the state government.

Standing Up to Sit

The absence of any form of trade union activities among female workers also is a reason for preferring female employees as salesgirls. Even though Kerala has an outstanding history of trade union movements, the mainstream male-dominated trade unions have not yet played any role to organise female retail employees from the textile sector. Historically, women’s trade union movements arise at a time when the mainstream trade unions ignore the interests of the women workers completely (Gothoskar 1983).

Similarly, the women workers from the textile retail sector started protesting against their managements on their own. A series of strikes and protests of salesgirls of various textile shops have been taking place in Kerala for the past two years. The right to sit is being highlighted as a basic right of the workers which is denied in all textile outlets. Thus, the strikes of workers of textile shops are called as sitting strikes (irippu samaram). On the international women’s day in 2014, a collective of women workers from the unorganised sector, Penkoottu,14 started campaigning for the textile retail workers’ right to sit by releasing a pamphlet named “seize the right to sit;” subsequently, two sitting strikes took place in different parts of Kerala. Both the strikes were inspiringly successful. The post-strike scenario in those textile shops, where the workers went on a strike was also analysed as part of this study. The textile managements adopt different strategies to defeat the purpose of the strike even after the success of the strike.

The salesgirls are reluctant to join trade unions due to the fear of losing employment. The management always discouraged union activities among these women workers. In certain shops the managements impose fines upon workers if they enter any campaigns. The salesgirls of a big textile shop in Alleppey district had raised this issue when they were on strike against their management. In a big textile showroom at Thrissur, a strike took place when six employees were harassed for joining the trade union. The management transferred them to different branches located in different districts, without serving a prior notice. The six of them went on a strike against the management; it lasted for three months. Finally, the management accepted their demands and took them back with a condition that they should work in the textile depot which was located in a reasonable proximity to the main showroom. The management agreed to provide minimum wages and social security benefits that they are entitled to, but the agitators were completely isolated from the rest of the sales staff by appointing them in the textile depot. While the post of employment is the same as that of sales staff, the nature of work is totally different.

As a result of the “right to sit campaign” initiated by women’s groups like Penkoottu, Asanghaditha Mekhala Thozhilali Union (AMTU) in Kozhikode, and the late interventions by trade unions like the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in Alappuzha, the government was forced to take action and an ordinance was passed amending KSCE Act, 1960 in 201415 which has become an act in 2015. While the ordinance came in the light of the “right to sit” campaign, the concept of right to sit was not fully incorporated in the legislation. Instead of incorporating the “right to sit” in the workspace, a provision for a restroom is introduced. It is specified in the provision that a restroom should be furnished with adequate number of seats. But chairs in the restrooms will not solve the issue of salesgirls as it is practically not possible to go to the restroom after attending each customer and come back for the next. Seats should be provided in the workspace itself, in order to solve the problem.

The ordinance also contains provisions for hostel facilities. If more than 50 women workers are employed in an establishment, there should be hostel facilities. The employers are more than happy to provide hostels for the workers. In the hostels the workers live in crammed conditions and are exploited like livestock. The managements have already set up hostels in certain big establishments. In a textile establishment in the Alappuzha district of Kerala, 60 women workers went on strike against their management citing the pathetic condition of the hostels provided to them. The amendment act does not say anything about ensuring the living conditions of the hostel. The provisions regarding penalty are quite inadequate to protect the social security of the workers. The amount of fine is the same for all kinds of establishments. For those big establishments where more than hundred workers are employed, it is more profitable to be fined than provide minimum wages and overtime wages to the workers.

The salesgirls in the textile are not living automatons anymore. They are in the streets fighting for their rights. The growing awareness among the women workers regarding their labour rights has resulted in the mobilisation in the retail sector. These developments have also forced the established trade unions working in the formal sector to focus on the informal sector as well. Though the amendments in the law have brought some respite to the salesgirls in the retail sector, it does not match up to expectations. A prolonged and consistent struggle is important to bring forth effective regulations and also to force the establishment to comply with the changing laws.


1 Karl Marx adds in a footnote in Capital, Vol 1, Dugald Stewart calls manufacturing labourers, “living automatons … employed in the details of work.”

2 Kerala occupies the first place on the basis of rural monthly per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE), among other states of India. But in the case of urban MPCE, Kerala got second place in 2004–05 whereas it occupied first place in 2009–10. The MPCE of urban Kerala has shown an increasing trend from ₹1,291 in 2004–05 to ₹2,663 in 2009–10. In the case of rural Kerala, the MPCE has increased from ₹1,013 in 2004–05 to ₹1,850 in 2009–10.


4 Section 2(1A), (10A), (15A) of Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments (Amendment) Act, 2015.

5 ENVIS-NIOH Newsletter on Occupational Reproductive Health Hazards, Vol 6, No 4, October–December 2011.

6 Kerala Municipality Building Rules, 1999.

7 Sulabh International is an India-based social service organisation that works to promote human rights.

8 Section 44(1) Factories Act, 1948.

9 Case No: 09cv2051-MMA(KSC).

10 Industrial Welfare Commission order No 7-2001 Regulating wages, hours and working conditions for Mercantile Industries. Section 14. Seats (A) All working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats. (B) When employees are not engaged in the active duties of their employment and the nature of the work requires standing, an adequate number of suitable seats shall be placed in reasonable proximity to the work area and employees shall be permitted to use such seats when it does not interfere with the performance of their duties.

11 Rule 5A Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments (Amendment) Rules, 2015.

12 Article 5(a) of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

13 Section 3(b) Minimum Wages Act, 1948.

14 Penkoottu is a Calicut-based collective of women workers of the unorganised sector.

15 Shops and Commercial Establishments (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014.


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Updated On : 19th Mar, 2018


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