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Gender factor

Print edition : Jul 13, 2007 T+T-

Young women are the preferred choice in Mumbai's retail stores but most of them do not get a fair deal from their employers.

ANUPAMA KATAKAM in Mumbai

TWENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD Shweta has been working in one of Mumbai's massive retail chain stores for over five years now. She commutes three hours every day from her home to the mall in Central Mumbai and back, to work an eight-hour shift, six days a week, in the store's household department. When she started, her salary was Rs.2,000 and today she earns Rs.3,100 - thanks to a protracted battle with the management and the union's intervention. "It's not the best job available but it's certainly better than being in a factory earning a daily wage. It provides a clean and safe work environment, which makes it a good option," Shweta says. "Compared to the time we started out, there has been a lot of improvement in the way the management treats us; so maybe things will become better in course of time."

Shweta is one of the many thousands of women in Mumbai and across the country who have found employment in the retail industry. With the industry witnessing a spurt in growth, the demand for workers appears to increase. Women, in particular, have become a sought-after resource in this sector. The average male-female ratio in department stores is 2:1, which is quite high, say human resource personnel.

According to the Retailers' Association of India, the industry employs about 10 per cent of the total workforce, the second largest employer after agriculture. Unfortunately data on labour practices in malls and large retail shops are hardly available. They constitute an extremely new area in the retail industry and their work culture is still evolving, say analysts.

Speaking to women who work in large retail stores, hyper markets, smaller shops in malls and in mall services, this correspondent found that most of them heard about the job openings either through word of mouth or through advertisements for walk-in interviews.

Retailers recruit some on campus directly. Most women are hired for the shop floor or for housekeeping, and a small percentage for security jobs. Shop-floor jobs involve interacting with customers, making sure that stocks are replenished and displays look presentable, and tidying the bay.

On an average, the salary ranges between Rs.3,000 and 4,000. They work eight hours, either in the 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift or in the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift. The average age of women workers is 19 to 27. Not many of them are married; most quit work after marriage. Most shop floor employees have passed 12th standard while those in housekeeping and security 10th standard. The parents of the women are domestic workers, low-grade salaried workers in offices or lower middle class office workers.

The work environment is changing but it was very difficult in the early days, says Shweta. "For instance, if we made one small mistake, we were asked to resign. Leave of absence is still an issue but we manage to get at least our weekly day off. Earlier, when we asked for a day off, the supervisor would make remarks such as: `With whom are you planning to spend the day?' Sexual harassment is not obvious but for suggestions like this, she says. They would make us stay long after our work hours and make us clean or do other tasks or just wait. Now we can punch our cards and leave as soon as our shift is over."

Mumbai has approximately 55 malls now. But it is only a matter of time before each locality has one. It is estimated that each mall employs approximately 500 people to take care of security, housekeeping and parking. This is excluding those who work on the shop floor.

"You will see more and more women in the retail space because they are easier to hire," says a labour contractor on condition of anonymity. "They do not argue about salary and are willing to be placed in any position. Also mall managements say women workers make the mall a friendlier place. Shoppers are more comfortable with women around."

Women are also docile and easy to control, says Anuradha Kalhan, a researcher in Economics at Bombay University who is currently researching human resource trends in the retail industry. The positive side is that it is a good environment to work in but the women are definitely exploited at some level, Kalhan says. Salaries, for instance, could be much higher given how successful these stores are. "Of course, cheap labour often aids in success," she adds. Furthermore, she says, the women face harassment and sometimes sexual abuse from their supervisors but are too scared to report it because of the taboo attached.

Sanjay Jog, head, human resource, the Future group, which owns Big Bazaar and Pantaloon, says that it does not have a specific policy on hiring women, but finds that women make better sales people. "We find that 90 per cent of our shoppers are women. And who best to buy a product from than another woman?" he says. "While we do not see a high turnover, a drawback, however, is the longevity of a woman employee as many do not return to work once they get married."

Views on sexual discrimination vary from store to store. For instance, Shilpa has been working as a shop assistant for more than four years. A graduate, she believes she could have done better; but, she says, when it comes to promotions at work, men are always given preference. "They probably think that women will leave after they get married or have children."

Khatija Shaikh, who works at Spencers Hyper, a massive department store in an upmarket mall in the city, says she never felt any discrimination. She began her career as a cashier but moved to a management position within a year. "Today I feel capable of handling the whole store!" she says. The human resource head of Spencers, Rizwan Khan, says they have put in place a training programme, which enables employees to move up the ladder. "It doesn't matter whether it is a woman or a man as long as they are capable."

Other than the Shiv Sena's Bharatiya Kamgar Sena (BKS) no other union is as yet involved in the mall industry in Mumbai. The BKS claims to have signed agreements with a large number of malls in the metropolis. While the BKS claims that it takes care of all issues, several workers say the union pushes only the "employment for Maharashtrians" agenda.

Furthermore, sources say the BKS often "gets the workers small victories but sacrifices their larger interests and are notorious for taking the side of the management on big issues". For example, increments have been a big issue at Big Bazaar but the union has done little about it. And there is evidence that many contract-labour agencies are linked to the Sena in some manner or the other. BKS leader Kiran Pawaskar, however, says, "We are committed to making sure that workers in this new industry are given a fair deal." Nonetheless, it clearly takes a union to make a difference, as seen in Shweta's case.

"No one is saying that this sector does not provide employment. It is the lack of rights that we are protesting against," says Vinod Shetty, a labour lawyer. "With these kind of numbers, we need to prepare a list of the best practices in the industry. Otherwise we will have a Wal-Mart-type situation on our hands."

It may be said here that most companies are hesitant to divulge information when it comes to labour and employment. At one big home-and-clothes shop run by one of India's largest companies, the "spokesperson" refused permission to this correspondent to speak to the staff. Informed sources said this company paid the lowest possible salary among the city's big stores and made its employees work almost 14-hour shifts.

The names of some employees have been changed to protect their identities.