Behind the Glittering Facade, India’s Retail Workers Face Poor Pay, Poorer Prospects

Entry-level salaries for salespersons in Mumbai are between Rs 6,000 and Rs 8,500, less than what farmhands in rural India can make in a month

The Forum Value Mall in Whitefields, Bangalore. Credit: Aasif Iqbal J/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The Forum Value Mall in Whitefields, Bangalore. Credit: Aasif Iqbal J/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Mumbai: Muzammil Shaikh sat with his legs outstretched, by the exit of a parking lot of a mall in Mulund, a northern suburb of Mumbai. His colleagues stood nearby, some smoking, others using their phones, all oblivious to the stench of garbage. But 21-year-old Muzammil was dreading having to return to the mall, where he would be standing continuously for the next four hours.

“I was just wondering what kind of a mess I’ve got myself into,” he said.

Shaikh moved to the city two years ago from a village near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. He thought a steady job would help him fund his education and support his parents. Instead he has been working as a salesman, earning Rs 10,000 a month, and living in a slum in Kurla. He and his brother spend about Rs 2,500 on rent for a house that is a fraction of the size of the one in his hometown.

“I can barely save any money to send home,” Shaikh said. “I have to finish my graduation soon and try to get a job in a good company. I did not think it would be so bad.”

No overtime

India’s organised retail sector employs over 10 million people and is estimated to reach 70 million by 2018. As the penetration of modern retail increases, the formal sector is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 15-20%. That perhaps explains the requirement – as stated in one advertisement – for young, enthusiastic, presentable, chirpy, helpful, salespeople who are a “customer’s delight for each customer each time”.

Many young people join the industry hoping it will be a stepping stone in a long career. But few manage to climb the corporate ladder or actually improve their lives.

To put things in perspective, an average male farm hand (ploughing and tilling) in rural India is paid Rs 271 per day, which translates to approximately Rs 8,130 per month. The minimum wage for a sales person, or ‘fashion consultant’, under the Shops and Establishment Act in Mumbai is Rs 8,440 (for skilled labour), Rs 8,040 (semi-skilled) and Rs 7,640 (for unskilled). This includes the basic wage and special allowance. Entry-level salaries for salespersons in Mumbai are between Rs 6,000 and Rs 8,500. Some workers are paid even less than the minimum wage, sometimes without a formal contract or a salary slip to prove their employment.

To implement “ease of doing business”, the BJP-led Maharashtra state government on June 23, 2015 introduced a self-certification system whereby industries and establishments will no longer to subjected to “inspector Raj” and can issue a certificate affirming that they adhere to labour laws. A notification dated June 1 stated that the license and renewal of license to the contractor under the Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970 shall be issued within seven working dates from the date of receipt of application, or else it shall be deemed to be granted. Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government announced that they would allow malls to be open for 24 hours, 365 days a year.

Every salesperson in Mumbai works two shifts – either 10.30 am to 8 pm or 12.30pm to 10pm, which is about 9.5 to 10 hours every day. As per section 14 of the Shops and Establishment Act, an employer can make a salesman work for only 48 hours a week (or eight hours a day) and not more than nine hours on any day. Section 63 mandates that when work exceeds eight hours, workers are entitled to overtime wages at the rate of twice their ordinary wages.

Of the 31 salespeople I spoke to for this story, none said they received regular overtime payments. This was despite the fact that they worked nearly 12 hours when sales were on. “Sirf aane ka time hota hai, jaane ka nahi,” (‘Only the time we have to come in is fixed, not the time we can leave’) said Kishori, who has been working for 15 years, eight of them in the retail sector.

In desperation, employees switch jobs for as little as a Rs 500 hike in their monthly salary. To minimise obligations, many retail firms outsource the hiring of salespeople to human resources companies. Some agencies also handle payroll.

“The model of outsourcing goes against the workforce in a big way,” a former employee of one recruitment agency said. “One of the main objectives is cost control. Besides, this is a labour surplus market, so there is a lot of demand for jobs. The salary can be kept low as a result.”

Physical effect

Stand and Deliver. Credit: Selvin Kurian/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Stand and Deliver. Credit: Selvin Kurian/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Stores rarely provide any seating facility for their retail staff. One manager from the retail industry told me that it is considered “respectful” to stand in front of customers. This has an impact on employees’ health.

“We usually get middle-aged salespeople who complain of chronic pain, feet and leg oedema or swelling, back pain and varicose veins,” said Dr A B Goregaonkar, the head of Orthopaedics at Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Hospital in Mumbai. “Standing for long hours can affect your posture. The problem is also that these people are standing in one place, and there is no space to walk which could improve blood circulation.”

Under the United Kingdom’s Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, 1992, employers must provide seats for workers who have to stand to carry out their work, if the type of work gives them an opportunity to sit from time to time.

But, union leaders feel that the demand is unreasonable. “If your service requires you to work in a certain way, you cannot complain,” said S K Rege, secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions. “For instance, factory workers who work in the chain process of manufacturing also have to stand for long hours. The criteria is that the work should be safe, and that the workman gets a break after five hours of work for at least half an hour.”

‘Rules worse than being in school’

Adding insult to injury, retail workers are subjected to strict rules that make schools pale in comparison. “When we enter the mall, they first take our phones,” said Nazneen, a 30-year-old graduate who works as a supervisor of a cosmetic brand, and has been in the industry for 11 years. “Then they check us from head to toe. They enter the details of what we have on our body. For instance, if there is cash, they write it down. Since eating is not allowed, even if they find a chocolate wrapper on us when we step out, they fine us Rs 500 as a deterrent. School se bhi jyada kanoon hai.”

Employees are held responsible for shrinkage or wastage, which includes merchandise that goes missing. Entrepreneur Nikhil John, 31, who worked in a sports mega-store in Thane while developing a business idea, said he was offended by the way he was body-searched when entering or leaving the premises. “No customer, who can also potentially steal items, was ever checked,” he said. “It used to upset me that the owners trusted the customers more than us.” John runs a recruitment site now.

A cashier in a prominent home furnishing store said that he has had to pay out of his pocket for counterfeit notes he inadvertently accepted. “During sale time, it is so crowded that it’s impossible to check every note,” he said. “I have paid three times this year – about Rs 3,000 in total – for accepting fake notes.”

There is no “office space” or even a separate room for staff. Malls usually provide an overcrowded canteen. Nazneen claims that the canteen in the mall where she works is so tiny that salespeople sometimes eat standing up. In addition, they are compelled to spend their other breaks outside the mall premises.

“Even if we sit on the benches outside the mall, we’re sent away. They won’t let us stand in the passages either,” said Priyanka, a 38-year-old who has worked for over 10 years in retail. “The mall is only for customers.”

Toilets meant for customers are also sometimes out of bounds. “My juniors change in the toilets meant for customers,” said Nazneen. “There’s no space in the one changing room given for my girls here. There is usually a long line. The toilets they provide us are also very dirty. If the security people complain [about using the customer toilets], I have to tell them to please let it pass and not let our managers know.”

‘Nobody tells us how to handle an angry customer’

Merit is a term that is bandied about a lot, especially to justify why workers aren’t paid well or promoted. A rare example of merit being rewarded is the story of 25-year-old Suraj. After nine years in the industry, he is now a manager at a sports store in an upmarket mall in Thane. He started out earning Rs 3,500 per month and now makes about Rs 30,000 p.m. Having learnt the workings of the industry, he owns a franchise of another store, which he runs with his family members.

He says enthusiasm is a prerequisite to progress. “One has to study the brand and give the proper information to the customer. We have to dress well, look good, be open to meeting new people, and look fresh for eight hours.”

An education programme manager at an organisation that trains retail employees said that people who were interested in their work did well from it. “An employee needs to learn and then go to the next level,” he said. “Only then will the organisation aid their goals. With many of these people, laziness takes over. Many people join retail as a compulsion and then haven’t done anything for their individual development. You cannot keep switching jobs for a raise of Rs 500.”

Whether companies aid the progress of careers is debatable. For instance, a key skill is being able to connect with customers. But while employees are trained in product information, they’re often at a loss when it comes to interacting with customers. “Nobody tells us how to handle an angry customer,” said one of the senior salesperson of a software company. “All we know is that we cannot talk back.”

“Many of these jobs are demeaning,” said advocate and labour activist Vinod Shetty. “Employees are literally abused every day, and are not supposed to react. The clock has now turned backward and now there is a steady slowing down of labour laws. Contract labour has entered every field.”

Lacking training and preoccupied with making ends meet, the motivation to climb the ladder is very low. “They just stay poor,” said John. “It’s impossible for them to grow. They have no option but to continue working where they work. They cannot think of making any investment. They cannot think about what they can do next, as they are just so tired. Some of these boys were in such bad circumstances, I wondered how they even smiled.”

(The names of most salespeople have been changed on request)

Menaka Rao is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai


    It is necessary to
    find out why there are so many graduates and so few jobs. Our education system
    produces graduates who have very little on the job training before they enter
    the job market. It has often been reported that most of those who qualify as
    graduate engineers are unfit for jobs in manufacturing sector, as they are
    simply not trained for such jobs. I believe that since creation of new jobs is not taking
    place, graduates are compelled to accept whatever job which is available and in
    such a scenario, one cannot expect a decent remuneration. Here I am reminded of
    a recent news report of very huge number candidates, some of whom were post
    graduates and even Ph.ds, who applied for post of a peon in the UP government.
    Solution lies in revamp of both education policy and industrial policy.

    • NCFIND

      Our Education system is driven by people who enacted a law like RTE to ensure equitable education. With such geniuses do we seriously believe that we will be able to develop skilled workforce?