New Delhi: The day Vishal Kanaujia turned 27, his employer handed him a pink slip. That was on 24 September.
Kanaujia was one of the around 1,000 front-office employees fired last month by Reliance Retail Ltd.
Employees are the latest casualty in the fight between some state governments, small store owners, and activist groups on the one side, and large companies such as Reliance Retail that are setting up store chains across the country, on the other.
Kanaujia was fired a month after the government of Uttar Pradesh asked Reliance to shut its stores in the state because these were creating law and order problems (a reference to the often violent protests against the entry of organized retail).
A file picture of protests against organized retail in the New Delhi suburb of Noida
Soon after, Reliance fired 400 employees in West Bengal where the company has had to suspend its planned debut after the Forward Bloc, a partner in the ruling coalition, warned of violent action if Reliance opened outlets in the state.
A senior Reliance Retail executive, who did not wish to be named, confirmed the number of employees fired in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
“It’s a major setback for people like us,” said a store supervisor at a Reliance store in Lucknow who was asked to go. “So many of us are jobless now as there are not many jobs,” he added, asking that he not be identified.
Retail consulting firm Technopak Advisors Pvt. Ltd says foreign and Indian companies will invest about $25 billion (Rs98,900 crore) in the retail business in the next three years, generating at least 2.5 million direct jobs. Reliance Retail, a unit of India’s top firm by market value, Reliance Industries Ltd, is investing $6 billion in the next three years and plans to create at least one million direct and indirect jobs.
The company has plans to invest up to Rs4,000 crore in opening about 15 million sq. ft of shopping space in Uttar Pradesh in the next three years, employing 50,000 people directly and creating 300,000 indirect jobs.
In West Bengal, the company has previously said that it would invest around Rs2,000 crore.
On 24 September, Harinder Pal Singh, the manager of the three Reliance Fresh stores in Lucknow, called the staff of the Burlington Crossing outlet to the store and told them that the company had decided to terminate their services, said Kanaujia. He added that each employee received a month’s salary as compensation.
“Everyone was crying and consoling each other,” said Kanaujia. “Some of us were the sole breadwinners for our families.”
Abhishek Prakash Shrivastava has not even been able to gather the courage to tell his family that he has lost his job.
His family, based in the city of Gorakhpur, thinks the 26-year-old is still employed at Reliance in Lucknow but Shrivastava has been looking for job opportunities in the last two weeks.
Telling them that he no longer has a job won’t solve the problem, Shrivastava said.
Opponents of companies entering the retail sector see modern retailers as a threat to the livelihoods of millions of small store owners. Irate groups of hawkers and small store owners have ransacked Reliance grocery stores in several states even as the company has become a proxy for big retail.
The trashing of the company’s Lucknow store prompted the state government’s order asking Reliance to close its stores in the state pending a state-sponsored study on its impact on small store owners.
Reliance says its stores create employment. The company hires people from the “lowest strata of the society”, said a top Reliance executive in Uttar Pradesh who did not wish to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media. However, the company is not firing around 700 skilled employees hired for functions such as supply chain, engineering, and information technology; these people have been transferred to stores and operations in other states even as the company stays in “wait and watch” mode,according to the Reliance executive.
Meanwhile, sacked employees of Reliance Retail, along with others who have been indirectly affected by the closure of the stores in Uttar Pradesh, plan to protest in Lucknow on Friday against chief minister Mayawati’s decision.
“We want jobs and if you cannot provide jobs you have no right to take our jobs,” Kanaujia said.