NEWS
19/11/2018 6:43 PM IST | Updated 19/11/2018 6:44 PM IST

Meet Viji Penkoottu, The Activist From Kerala Who Is On BBC’s ‘100 Women 2018’ List

Viji and her organisation received global attention after leading the 'right to sit' struggle by saleswomen in Kerala.

Facebook/Viji Penkoottu
Viji Penkoottu.

Viji Penkoottu, a 50-year-old activist from Kerala who was at the forefront of the 'right to sit' struggle waged by female shopworkers in the state, is among the three Indians on the "100 Women 2018" list released by the BBC on Monday.

The list, which brings together "inspiring and influential women" from more than 60 countries, includes names like the Clinton Foundation's Chelsea Clinton, The Good Place actor Jameela Jamil and Chilean writer Isabel Allende.

The other Indian women on the list are Rahibai Soma Popere, who works to conserve indigenous seed varieties, and Meena Gayen, who worked with other women in the Sunderbans delta to build a road to their village.

Viji told HuffPost India over phone that she "had not expected" to be recognised by the BBC.

"I am very happy about being on the list. I think this shows that these basic demands that we fight for here are actually issues that women around the world face," she said.

We began as a group fighting for toilets for women to use. When we held meetings, women would start crying while talking about their experiences.

Viji's collective, also named Penkoottu (women for each other), was formed in late 2009 after established trade unions refused to take the demands of unorganised women workers seriously.

"We began as a group fighting for toilets for women to use. When we held meetings, women would start crying while talking about their experiences," said Viji, who is based in Kozhikode.

The right to sit

Penkoottu's struggles began on Kozhikode's Mithai Theruvu (Sweet Meat Street) which, as the name suggests, has plenty of shops selling authentic Kozhikodan aluva and other sweets and is the business hub of the city.

The organisation received global attention in July this year when the Kerala government amended the law to ensure a "secure environment" for working women—these included fixed working hours, proper breaks and crucially, the "right to sit".

Saleswomen in Kerala's many glossy retail showrooms were often forced to stay on their feet all day, even when there were no customers in the shop. Their pay could be docked if they were even found leaning against a wall or talking to each other. Some women, reported The Guardian, would not even drink too much water as they could not visit the toilet when they wanted to.

Facebook/Viji Penkoottu
One of the 'sit-down' protests held by retail workers and activists under the banner of AMTU.

Penkoottu, along with groups of other unorganised saleswomen, led the battle to get these unjust rules changed.

"The shop owners, including the Kerala merchants' union, had said that if people wanted to sit or use the toilet, they should just stay at home. That really made us angry, and we started the iruppu samaram (protest to sit)," Viji had told The Times of India then.

Last month, the Kerala governor promulgated the ordinance brought by the government, making it mandatory for shops to provide seats to its workers.

How AMTU was formed

It was the realisation that a union was necessary to be able to intervene in the issues faced by unorganised workers that the Asangatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU), a forum of unorganised workers anchored by Penkoottu, was set up. Viji told HuffPost India that while they applied for the organisation's registration in 2013, they only received the necessary approval in 2016.

AMTU, she said, was a women-led trade union—while many men who belong to the unorganised sector are members, the leadership positions are held only by women.

Members of the AMTU include male and female employees of petrol pumps, Supplyco stores (run by Kerala's Civil Supplies Corporation) and retail shops, among others.

AMTU is a women-led trade union—while many men who belong to the unorganised sector are members, the leadership positions are held only by women.

The AMTU has taken up struggles including demands for toilets and other facilities for washermen and a holiday to be able to vote.

"Our demands are simple—there should be eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for recreation. And this is as applicable for women as it is for men," said Viji.

"It is not our fault that we are women. We are human too," she adds.