Shopping malls are so much fun, aren’t they? All your favourite brands lined up in one location. The latest trends on display, beckoning you (or your wallet)…
Come take a taste. Try me out. You want it. We know… we know.
And you’re lured in by the smell of fresh fabric, the jazzy music and the flashy lights that bombard your senses. Before you know it, your arms are full of clothes to try out, and you head eagerly to the nearest waiting room to try them on because you can’t wait to confirm what your heart has been telling you the moment you laid eyes on that dress – you and that dress are meant to be!
But wait a minute, what’s this? It’s one size too small? Hmmm…. maybe you shouldn’t have had that butter chicken the other day. You step out and you can’t find a sales girl to help you out. Your eyes dart to the security/housekeeping personnel who’s folding back the clothes every customer has dumped, pell mall, on the trial room floors, or in a dumpster outside the trial rooms. You tell her you need a certain size. She looks a little hesitant to leave her spot, so she tells you that she’ll find a sales girl for you. You breathe hellfire on her for being unhelpful to a customer (how dare she, I’m a customer!) and threaten to report her to the store manager. She heads out to find your size and gets a firing from the manager anyway because she left her spot… for you. But you’re not there to tell that to the manager because you’ve already bought that dress and exited the store.
Does this sound familiar? No? Maybe that’s because most of us don’t pay attention to what happens to the ones working in the store, helping us out in making tough decisions on matters about what we should buy. The customer is king, they’ve been told, so if they’re found slacking in a corner, or heaven help, sitting down while they’re working, it creates a bad image for the store.
I’m writing this article today because I realised that as a customer, we often have unrealistic expectations from sales and housekeeping personnel in the retail and some other sectors, which worm their way into their ‘work profiles’ over a period of time.
The realization came because a few days ago, I was at a shopping mall with my mother and we were in the trial rooms of a big retail store, trying out some clothes. My mother was still in, while I was sitting out, waiting for her. It was a weekday and customers were sparse. A ‘housekeeping’ personnel was folding the clothes in the trial room waiting lounge. She had a heap of clothes to fold which she had been folding, standing all the while. Suddenly, she walked across to where I was sitting and went into an empty trial room to sit down (there was no other sitting area except where I was sitting along with my mountain of clothes).
She saw me and smiled sheepishly. I knew she wasn’t supposed to sit. She knew that I knew. So she ventured, “I’ve got acidity today. Just wanted to sit for a while…”
I smiled sympathetically. I get acidity a lot. I know how bad it gets. This time I ventured, “Why don’t you eat something?”
“We’re not allowed to snack before lunchtime.”
“When is lunchtime.”
I looked at my watch. It was 12… two hours to go. “Haven’t you had anything since morning?”
“Ma’am, we’re supposed to report to work at 9. I come from a place that is an hour’s drive from here. I mostly snack on a cup of tea and maybe a chapati before I start for work. There’s a tea break but there’s no time to eat when we’re at work other than at lunchtime… I get acidity frequently.”
I feel bad for her, till I hear this,”They don’t let us sit either. The manager gets mad if he sees me sitting.”
Now I feel worse.
She gets up and walks back to her spot, folding out clothes, handing out tabs to other customers. While I’m left contemplating just how taxing her job must be where she isn’t even allowed to sit, on top of dealing with customers who can be uncouth and demanding.
Now of course by this time, you’re telling your screen (me that is) that I’m not supposed to take that literally. Of course, they sneak in a few snacks and a few minutes of rest here and there, but not as a matter of right. Contractually, they aren’t supposed to be idling. They have to ‘sneak’ those moments into their work-day because their bodies can’t take it anymore. I think nobody can stand for as long as hours at a stretch. It’s inconceivable and inhuman to force it on someone in the name of work!
The episode above got me thinking about the implications of our present consumption-driven economy on the work ethics and environment especially pertaining to the lower income workforce – the security guards, the sales or floor executives at retail stores, busboys, waiters and waitresses at eating joints and fast food centres, cashiers and retail clerks, stock boys, housekeeping personnel – all required to put in long hours of work… all standing.
What I couldn’t understand was that while they are expected to be helpful to customers, why must they do so only standing? A cashier can handle a transaction sitting down too. A security guard can guard the place sitting down as well. A sales executive can sit down when no one is looking for her help. And ‘security’ personnel in clothing stores who are ‘also’ supposed to fold clothes and clean the trial rooms (like the one I talked to) should just never be asked to entertain customers. That isn’t part of their work profile and it shouldn’t be demanded from them either. And yet they are frequently made to do jobs that aren’t part of their work profile, while we don’t expect the CFO of a company to do the CEO’s job. How odd!
Does this disparity in treatment stem from the belief that skilled labour or a better qualification is valued above manual labour? But doesn’t manual labour involve some kind of skill too?
I bet a CEO can’t do a stock-boy’s job for a day without whining about the pain. Does it not strike you as odd that jobs demanding the most from the body are the least paying jobs in the world? Farmers, janitors, housemaids, sweepers, cleaners – all of them are ill-paid. I guess brain work qualifies for a higher pay scale vis a vis manual work that every human is born capable of performing anyway. Immoral as it may sound, why pay more for something that comes in abundance? Because this work-force comes cheap, maybe its considered in the corporate world as ‘expendable’, which is probably why there isn’t much emphasis on their well-being.
I don’t know much in terms of the nature of their employment, their contractual duties and their working conditions, but what is apparent to me in all the cases where people are employed in big retail stores in low-end jobs is:
a. They have long work hours.
b. They are meant to do their jobs standing.
c. For a physically demanding job, they aren’t paid that well.
d. They have uniforms/work clothes which are not designed necessarily for comfort.
e. They aren’t allowed many breaks in between. Mostly one lunch break and one tea break, maybe two.
At least in India, what I’ve noticed is that the lower income employees (I’m sorry I don’t know the official term for them) in retail stores are often wearing ill-fitting clothes. The shoes particularly are not designed for the job. Male employees wear dress shoes which hurt like hell, women wear heels which give you painful feet and at the end of the day, if you are in a job that requires you to stand and run around for as long as 8-10 hours a day, not even the comfiest shoes will prevent the problems that arise from standing too long – bunions (for those in heels), back pain, posture issues, fatigue, varicose veins, swollen legs… many more.
This lady I met at the mall was not the only instance of lower-income employees being abused that I came across. About 5-6 years ago, a housemaid’s son got a job as a sales boy in a retail store but within a month’s time he gave up the job because –
A. They wouldn’t allow him to sit at all.
B. The dress shoes given by the company were uncomfortable enough that they gave him sores.
C. He was paid only 5000 (73.70 USD) for a job that required 8 hours of work with frequent overtime but no overtime pay.
Even though this was a few years ago, I’m sure, the pay scale hasn’t changed much for lower-end jobs. I know some security guards who sit outside ATM’s who don’t get paid beyond 8000 (118 USD). I just checked online and found out that a cashier’s average salary in the Future Group (a big name in Indian retail) is a little over 11,000 (162 USD) per month. This amount is peanuts for sustenance in today’s world.
What compounds their problem are the labour laws of the country that exclude many of the categories of employees mentioned in this article as being outside the ambit of the labour laws. This puts them in a peculiar position where they can’t claim, as a matter of right, basic wages or social security or better working conditions unless they take the dispute to a Civil Court. And why would someone who gets paid only five thousand bucks a month engage in a long-drawn, nasty battle against a corporate giant? The odds are stacked high against this unfortunate bunch of workers.
So, they can’t be helped because the corporations they work for won’t care enough to make life easier for them and because laws aren’t like clothes – they can’t be changed for the better so easily. I know that a job in retail is demanding, physically and mentally, but must it be so taxing that workers feel like bonded labour who can’t even sit or stand at will? When the customer is valued for the money he brings to the corporation, shouldn’t the corporation value the health of its workforce in return for the hours of service it provides?
But this is where WE step in.
We all know taking on corporations in a battle for labour rights will be fruitless. But we as customers or even as employers can make their lives just a little easier by being nice to them; by not demanding from them what their designation doesn’t allow; by just understanding that work isn’t all that matters in the world.
Try on a little kindness when you’re shopping the next time.
It WILL fit you well.
Copyright ©2018 Pradita Kapahi.
All rights reserved.
Original Image: StillWorksImagery at Pixabay