These are two contrasting images. One is that of elegant Aishwarya Rai relaxing, with an underage child holding an umbrella over her, and with the glittering Kalyan Jewellers logo in the background. The other is of a group of perspiring women, sitting under a canopy, holding posters reading, “Kalyan stands for exploitation."

Besides jewellery, Kalyan is also a major player in Kerala’s textile market. It might be a powerful coincidence that as the ad featuring Rai was withdrawn by Kalyan Jewellers for celebrating slavery and racism, women employees of Kalyan Sarees, a group company, won a more than three-month long battle against the management for better working conditions.

It was the end of a struggle for Padmini, Maya Devi and four other women as they rejoined work at a Kalyan showroom in Thrissur on Saturday, April 25. Their demands from the Kalyan management were as basic as right to work, the right to sit during work and permission to use the washroom during work hours. The odds were stacked against the protestors, but they eventually won.

Punishment transfers

The chain of events started late last year after the management of Kalyan Sarees in Thrissur in Kerala transferred six of its women staff, without prior notice, to branches across Kerala.

The reason, the women said, was because they demanded better wages and working conditions. “We were getting a meagre salary of Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000 after putting in 11-12 hours of work,” said Maya Devi, one of the protesters. “Though our basic pay was raised to Rs 7,200, the transfers followed as a punishment.” Their decision to join a union was the immediate reason behind the sudden transfer, she alleged.

However, the company denied these allegations and defended the transfers. “We haven’t flouted any rules,” said Shivprasad Nair, a spokesperson for Kalyan Sarees. “Transfer is a company policy. The employees were provided with provident fund and other benefits.”

The employees had a different story to tell. “Though provident fund is cut every month, we haven’t been given our PF number or any proof,” said Padmini, another protester. “Moreover, if we swipe our attendance [card] even a minute late, half a day’s salary is cut.”

Though the transfer came as a shock for the six staffers of the Thrissur showroom, they knew it was a point of no return for them. They decided to revolt against the suppression of their rights and went on a “sitting strike” in front of the showroom on December 30. “We could have left our jobs but we decided that we have had enough,” Devi said. “How long can one suffer indignity at work?”

A poster used in the online campaign.

As the textile industry grows by leaps and bounds, it increasingly employs women as they come at a lower pay. “Textile industry mainly targets women workers because it doesn’t require high educational qualification and the talent pool is vast,” said Liju Kumar, president of Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union, which was at the forefront of the protest. “Exploitation is rampant in this industry as nobody dares to raise their voice fearing for their job.”

Called as “right to sit” protest, the 100-day stir also shed light on the state of affairs in the showroom. Sitting for two minutes was a luxury for Maya Devi, even when she had her period. With no stools or chairs to sit, the only way out was to rush to the toilet. With cameras monitoring the workers’ movements, every additional minute spent in the washroom is timed. “It is miserable with no stools or chairs to sit or take rest for few minutes,” Devi said. “With men as supervisors, we cannot share our menstruation problems. Sometimes, we put cardboard boxes in front of the toilet and sit. The idea is to sit away from the spying eyes of camera.”

However, the management has a different take on the issue. “Our staff share the same washrooms as our customers,” Nair said. “I guess they are revolting because they are provided too much comfort.”

Though the unique “sitting strike” attracted social media attention and saw the participation of other civil society organisations  and prominent leaders, it took three months for the management to blink. The protest finally ended on April 15.

According to the agreement reached, the six women’s transfers have been cancelled and they have been inducted back into the Kalyan Sarees depot in Thrissur. They will now handle office work and, in addition, will get the salaries for the duration of the strike.

However, at the end of the day, the women are happy that now they can go home when the clock strikes 7pm, get a provident fund number and a salary slip and, most importantly, stools to sit on.