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Do You Have a Right to Sit Down While Working?

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    By NEELA RAMSUNDAR

 

I once encountered a salesclerk who worked for a local cosmetics store. It was her day off. We chatted a bit, then the conversation turned to how she loved her job, but she was thinking of leaving it. I asked why. The answer was unexpected: she had to constantly stand behind the counter and could not sit down.

I was told her superiors only provided a limited number of chairs for over a dozen salesclerks so standing was the norm. She explained standing, instead of sitting when dealing with customers made the company look like they were serving their customers better. So, she felt pressured to stand as it was expected of her.

She went on to relate that eventually her feet would start to hurt and it didn’t matter if she wore comfortable shoes or not.

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In any event, being a cosmetics store, she was expected to look “sexy” so comfortable shoes were not really “in”. She worked six to eight hours a day and wondered if she could find another job where she did not have to go home every day with very tired or painful feet.

Before then, I must admit, I did wonder why so many of employees at that store seemed grumpy when you tried to ask for an item… That insight into the life of a salesclerk was illuminating.

This true story highlights a little-discussed, but important employment issue in the workplace – are all employees entitled to suitable seating while at work?

There is a piece of legislation having origins from an ancient law in England dating back to circa 1911, called the Shop (Hours of Opening and Employment) Act, Chapter 84:02. (I shall refer to this Act as “the Shop Act”).

Section 17 of the Shop Act gives “female shop assistants” the right to have a minimum of one seat per room, but no less than one seat per room for every three of them. It also imposes a duty on the occupier of the shop to permit the female shop assistants “reasonable use of such seats”.

The Shop Act further obliges the occupier to post in a conspicuous position in the shop a notice containing the following words:

“NOTICE is hereby given that seats are provided in this shop for Female Shop Assistants and that these Assistants may make reasonable use of the seats.”

The sanctions for failure to comply with these laws are little more than a slap on the wrist: on summary conviction, a first-time offender is liable to pay a fine of $200 and for any subsequent offence, a fine of $400.

The state of California, USA, (which has some of the most progressive laws in the world) has seen several class action lawsuits filed against large retailers such as Walmart, CVS and Target over employee’s right to be able to sit.

Their law, as it currently stands, is that as long as the task the employee is doing does not conflict with sitting down, employers in California must provide a chair to any worker that wants one.

Comparing the scope of section 17 of the Shop Act against its Californian counterpart serves to highlight, in my opinion, a grand deficiency in our legislation to specifically deal with every employee’s right to suitable seating.

Apart from the Shop Act appearing to be firstly, discriminatory in favour of women shop assistants, and secondly, embarrassingly limited in scope (one seat to three women), I agree with the California model, in that suitable seating ought to be an entitlement of every worker in Trinidad and Tobago, unless the task being performed makes this unreasonable.

There is an abundance of medical opinion which indicate continuous standing while working can cause a myriad of health issues, including tired feet and muscles, foot and back pain and swelling of joints and feet.

Our Shop Act clearly needs modernising. It is hoped in the absence of appropriate amendments or fresh law granting every employee the specific right to be able to sit, that employers will embrace best practices or give thoughtful consideration to ensuring every worker, where reasonable, has access to suitable chairs for their use.

A sizeable portion of the working population is unionised and the issue may or may not be covered their respective collective agreements. This article however, discusses the rights available to non-unionised workers.

© Neela Ramsundar, LL.B (HONS), L.E.C is a Civil Litigation Attorney at Law & Certified Mediator

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general informative purposes only. It does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney – client relationship. For legal advice, please contact an Attorney-at-Law of your choosing directly.

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