Twenty-four-year-old Amit wades through sacks of rice and wheat in the air-conditioned aisles of Big Bazaar, a supermarket in central Mumbai that belongs to the country’s large listed retailer, Pantaloon Retail India Ltd. In his hot pink T-shirt and shiny black shoes, sales assistant Amit, who did not give his second name, looks like one of the many young shoppers that the store attracts.
With its blaring music, buzzing nightclubs, bowling alleys and television screens, the mall complex where the store is located is a world away from the nearby textile mill where Amit’s father worked for 30 years. “If the workers came inside, they would never recognize where they worked,” Amit says. Yet, the reinvented mall is seeing the rise of one of the ubiquitous symbols of Mumbai’s mills—trade unions.
Amit, whose father was a unionized textile worker, is part of a group of 200 Pantaloon employees that claims to have formed a union under the banner of the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena (BKS), an arm of local right-wing party, the Shiv Sena. In March, the union shut down four of Mumbai’s Big Bazaar stores, protesting against the sacking of 12 workers hired to work at a store whose opening was delayed.
Mumbai’s textile mills bred one of country’s strongest union movements, where migrants from across the state and the country fought for benefits and eight-hour work days, among other things.
The retail unions are nowhere close to being as powerful. The newly formed unions at Big Bazaar and Metro AG, a German retailer with two stores, are still finding their feet. They are fighting for better pay, shorter hours, faster promotions, staff rooms, educational and medical facilities, and other benefits. The union at Big Bazaar hopes for higher increments this year. Starting salaries for employees have gone up to Rs3,800 a month from Rs2,800 when Amit started three-and-a-half years ago.
The first trade union in an organized retail chain in India is in the process of being registered at Metro. It is fighting the company over the sacking of its members in labour court. Pantaloon and Metro have not recognized the unions.
“Wherever we tried to form unions in Mumbai and Bangalore, the staff members were fired. We are now trying to form a general union including mall workers,” says M.K. Pandhe, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
Most jobs in retail are not permanent; instead, employees are hired on contract and can be more easily fired than permanent employees. That makes it difficult for the workers to form unions.
“It is hard for mall workers to be unionized. Their jobs are largely unorganized,” says L.K. Deshpande, a labour economist at Mumbai University.
The Shiv Sena has been more successful than the CPM in making inroads in this sector. “We start by giving written petitions to managements. Then we send reminders. But if they don’t respond, we storm their offices and they are forced to recognize us,” says Suryajant Mahadik of BKS, whose union operates in city hotels, airports, banks, ports and auto firms across the city.
The unions at Big Bazaar and Metro say they have been around for more than a year without the companies recognizing them.
Sanjay Jog, who heads human resources at Pantaloon, says the company does not have a union. However, he admits that Pantaloon downed shutters in four stores because of an employee protest.
Jog says the company has a grievance redressal mechanism through which it regularly talks to all employees. He adds that the company tries to hire staff who belong to the area adjoining its stores as far as possible. Jog claims a majority of staff at the company’s Parel store are children of textile mill workers.
A spokesperson for Metro, too, says the company does not have a union. “Metro Cash & Carry is an equal opportunity employer and has... HR procedures which are practised globally,” he adds in a written statement.
Internationally, too, employees haven’t found it easy to form unions in retail chains. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. has always been opposed to them, for instance. Although retail is India’s second largest employer, after agriculture, only 4% of the more than $300 billion (Rs12.2 trillion) retail market is organized, according to some estimates. With organized retail growing at around 40% a year, the sector could add up to two million jobs, according to the Retailers Association of India, an industry body.
The retail unions claim that even as they fight for recognition, they are beginning to make a difference. Big Bazaar union member Mayur Vankar says workers now put in nine-hour shifts compared with 12-hour days earlier. At Metro, union member Kartik Shekhar says the company now makes provident fund payments for all employees.
Both unions say they have represented cashiers who may have been asked to personally make up for shortfalls in cash collection. They need to do more, says Deshpande. Given the demand for jobs, unions need to underscore the need for them to be there, he says. “Not everyone in this sector wants to be in a union because there are no comparable jobs that are better,” he adds.
Amit knows that being part of a union can cut both ways. His father stayed jobless for four years after his textile mill shut down in 1999. Mumbai’s textile mill owners preferred to relocate or down shutters rather than deal with unions. Amit dropped out of college and took the Big Bazaar job in desperation after his father waited for years for his dues. Amit’s father now works as a security guard in a mill-turned-mall and refuses to talk to Mint because he is scared that he could lose this job, too.
Amit’s peers are either jobless or have harder jobs without the medical and continuing education opportunities he now has. Amit himself hopes to graduate this year and stay on in the retail business. Pantaloon offers a retail MBA programme for graduates in association with a few B-schools. Smiling shyly, Amit says he is aware that there is a buzz around the retail business these days.
(Trade unionism in India reached its peak in the 1980s in Mumbai when thousands of textile mill workers became members of unions. In the first of a two-part series on trade unions, Mint looks at the movement in the retail industry. Part 2 will look at the reaction of India’s pharmaceutical companies to trade unions.)