Shopping malls, restaurants and Sector V have altered the city’s skyline and its workforce in the last five years. But how do the people who serve the services sector fare' A look at employees in some of the booming professions.
Housekeeping staff are de rigueur today, not only in the hospitality industry, but also in any self-respecting company too. In white or dark blue over-alls, they are seen gliding down the corridor pushing a giant broom or parked in the ladies’ washroom, forever replenishing toilet paper supplies. At hotels, the housekeeping staff have to make beds, clean rooms, toilets and check the linen and upholstery. The job requires patience and alertness, an eye for detail and an ability not to lose one’s temper. And it requires hours of being on one’s toes, literally.
What do they get in return' Between Rs 2,500 and Rs 4,500 per month.
Not everyone is complaining. A member of the housekeeping staff who has been with The Park since 1992, works nine-hour shifts, which often extend to 10 or 12, if the work pressure is more or a colleague is absent, commuting daily from Lakshmikantapur in South 24-Parganas. He has a wife and two children to support. “For morning shifts I have to leave at 4am and report at 7am. After the day shift that gives over at 10pm, I walk to Park Circus to catch a train back. There’s a drop facility, but that starts after midnight,” he says.
A 22-year-old casual worker sent by an agency has been working at the same hotel for more than two years. “I have a weekly off, but no leave. If I don’t come to work, money is deducted from my salary,” says Santosh. He supplements his income by doing extra shifts when his colleagues are absent. “A few guests dirty the room or are gruff, but they are guests,” says the resigned worker.
Their manager concedes that it is difficult. “Most of them come from very far away. And it’s true that their labour is not matched by the salary,” says Indrani Sanyal, director (housekeeping), The Park.
But a woman attendant at an Elgin Road shopping mall is resentful. “Customers often keep the taps open, splash water on the floor and don’t flush after using the toilet. If I ask someone to be a little careful, she may ask me what I am paid for if not to clean the place.”
In other departments of a hotel, the starting salary can be as low as Rs 4,000 per month. Rudra Chatterjee, Abhijeet Biswas and Sarit Sau, who work in the food and beverage department of The Park, hold hotel management degrees for which they had paid more than a lakh each. But they do not mind. They look to the future. “I wouldn’t complain. There is ample scope of growth,” says Rudra.
You may take their help in locating the right shirt size or you may get irritated at their officious intervention, but there’s no denying their hard work. On their feet from morning till night, they don’t have an easy time being a shop-floor attendant. “The airconditioner is so cold that it’s a constant bother. I have to wear two-three shirts. And yet the body gets so used to being in the cold that it’s difficult at home. I don’t feel it at work, but at night my feet ache a lot, because I have been standing the whole day,” says a shop-floor attendant at a Camac Street department store.
The pay can be as little as Rs 3,500. A shop-floor attendant at a retail chain outlet in south Calcutta says his salary is around Rs 3,700 per month and it can mean eight hours of being on your feet and yet being pleasant to people. But he likes it. “There is a future here. Retail and IT are the two industries that offer maximum scope for growth. I plan to stick around,” he says confidently. One of his colleagues chips in: “Freshers find it difficult to spend so many hours standing. But with time you get used to it.”
Naveen Misra, unit head, Shoppers’ Stop, Elgin Road, says: “I wouldn’t say it is a difficult life. Earlier people used to be happy with whatever little they had. Now aspirations have changed, lifestyles have changed, so obviously they have to work hard for it.”
Food court funda
Even a “counter manager” has to work 12-hour shifts for a salary as low as Rs 3,000 a month. Says Ashish Saha (name changed), who works at the food court of an Elgin Road shopping mall: “I come in by 10am and leave after 11pm. I am on my feet all day.” Most don’t get leave on holidays. “People shop on Independence Day or Janmashtami. We have to work,” adds his colleague.
Tarun Auddy (name changed), another employee at the court, says he doesn’t have a weekly day off. His duties are for at least 13 hours every day and he is paid Rs 3,000 a month. Missing a workday means a deduction of Rs 100 from his salary. Bandhs and transport strikes mean walking to work. Tapan cycles from Jadavpur to Elgin Road on such days.
Many have to work in shifts of five, seven and 12 hours on rotation. Irfan Khan (name changed), 29, is employed by an international security group with its Indian head office in Gurgaon. A political science honours graduate, he stopped giving private lessons to take up the job two years ago. Posted at a Sector V IT company, he earns roughly Rs 2,800 a month (Security guards, as well as many call centre employees, get four days off a month. They don’t get a fifth day off.) “It takes me about Rs 30 daily to travel from Barasat to Sector V. This leaves me with very little at the end of the month,” he says. If one’s uniform is found to be less than satisfactory or one is caught dozing off, the employers can deduct a part of the pay.
In case the replacement does not turn up, a security guard may have to work three continuous shifts. “We get Rs 2,600 for 26 days. So we try not to take a day off,” says a Tops Security employee. Banibrata Sarkar, regional manger (prime business), Tops Security, says: “We pay according to the government’s salary stipulation for a Group D employee. The employees are told about the pitfalls of the job before being appointed. They are paid for ‘overtime’ and compensated if they have to do two shifts in a row.”
Some Sector V companies have a separate allowance for security personnel.
Most companies in Sector V have a “drop” facility for employees. The cars are mostly supplied by rental agencies. Metro Travel Agency in Bhowanipore provides cars to many of the companies. “Each car is assigned to two drivers who work alternate 12-hour shifts. So if one driver is on leave or absent, it means the other driver has to drive for 24 to 36 hours,” says Amit Chatterjee, a partner in the agency. But things generally don’t get that bad, says Baidyanath Basak, who drives an ambassador for Super Shuttle, a car agency. “You have to reach an understanding with the other driver,” he says. There is no “overtime” and in most cases no PF or ESI. A driver makes about Rs 3,000 a month.
Car agencies say that their hands are tied. Chatterjee admits that according to the state government the tariff for such a car should be Rs 430 for 10 hours. “But the industry is competitive. Even government offices hire cars on a lower rate,” he claims.
Sector V is big dough, swank offices with pool and gym facilities and weird working hours. The working hours are almost uniformly weird, but are all offices the same' The salary can be as low as Rs 10,000 — and Rs 6,000 at the starting level. Moumita Guha (name changed), a 21-year-old employee at one of the largest call centres, points out well-known maladies: “Sleep disorders are common and many colleagues suffer from low blood pressure.” Breaks are few. Speaking in a fake accent and answering to a fictitious name take their toll.
But Priyankar Deb, a 24-year-old employee of a major call centre, takes it in his stride. “I know what you mean. But one can maintain a healthy eating habit and sleep as much as possible during the day. The identity crisis, even for those who have it, is only during working hours,” he says.
The Indian services sector has been growing at 28 per cent annually for the last five years. It accounts for 55 per cent of the country’s GDP. Not much of the boom is reflected at the ground level.