By Vishakha Raj
The writer is a school student and a labour blogger.
Vennila (name changed) is a 20-year old woman who works at a supermarket chain outlet in South Chennai. She has been here for the last two years, before which she worked at a departmental store for four years. Vennila says she did not enjoy her school days very much before this. She cleared her class nine examination but left school because her teachers were bad. However, here at the super market she says she likes her work as she has good friends as co-workers. Vennila belongs to the fishing community; the rest of the people are mostly from BC, SC and MBC communities, she said. Ordinarily, she works at the billing counter. Sometimes she works in the aisles too, arranging and attending to customers. Her aspirations for the future seemed to revolve around her coming child. She wants to make her child study well. As of now, she is content working at the present store.
Her work day
Her day starts at 9 a.m.; she gets a tea break at 11 a.m., but has to continue to work while drinking her tea. At 2.30 p.m. she gets a two hour lunch break, after which she works until 9 p.m. — a 10-hour work day. She can use the bathroom as many times as she wants and doesn’t need anyone’s permission for this; the person packaging takes over while she is in the bathroom. She is entitled to one day off weekly; she can choose any day except for the weekend when there are more customers. An attendance register is maintained.
She says that the manager she works for is very good to her and kind. He grants her leave when she is sick. She is pregnant now, and her manager has told her that if she can work after having a child, then she can come back. She gets her month’s salary in the first week of the next month. If there is a delay in the salary and she needs the money quickly, she can file a voucher (like other employees do) stating why she needs the money urgently (like rent reasons) and receive the payment immediately.
Some customers are very good to her. She talked about one customer who is a professor in a college; he attended her wedding and gave her gifts. But then there are other customers who take out their “anger about problems at home” in the store. There was one customer who pushed her over (when she was pregnant) for a simple thing. She told his daughter that a certain product was not available in the shop, but in the bakery section, instead of offering to get it from the bakery section.
However, despite such incidents, she says she is happy working at the store.
She gets Rs. 6500 a month, with a Rs. 500 increment every year.
The Writer’s thoughts
Vennila’s contentment with her place of work does not mean that the work place offers a healthy work environment. In fact, the supermarket flouts several labour laws. Vennila does not have an appointment letter or a card that says she works in the store. She does not get a receipt with her salary either. Provident Fund or health benefits are not given, despite the fact that 30 people work at the store. Maternity leave and benefits which are mandated by the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, are not offered. Vennila said that if she takes a few months off after delivering the baby, there is no assurance that she will get her job back. Getting such a leave would be based on the manager’s good will. I find it a little sad and unfortunate that Vennila considers this a good environment to work in. Such a perception probably stems from lack of knowledge, although I can’t be sure as I did not question her specifically on this. Things that should be her right and the right of any employee (like maternity leave) seem to have become concessions granted at will by a manager, and for which workers have to be grateful. Other rights such as a contract, salary slips and health benefits and Provident Fund are not even offered.
I have intentionally withheld the name of the employee or the employer. Vennila was apprehensive that her employer would read this interview. What use are labour laws and constitutional rights guaranteeing freedom of expression if they are not enforced?