During the ongoing state Assembly session, CV Ganesan, Minister for Labour Welfare and Skill Development introduced a Bill on 6 Sep. ’21 to amend the Tamil Nadu Shops & Establishments Act 1947, making it mandatory for retail establishments to provide for seating arrangement for their employees. What has been welcomed by scores of people who are employed in retail trade, the trade fraternity expressed their discontent on the move. Mahesh (name changed) who has been working in a large Textile showroom in the bustling T. Nagar shopping hub of Chennai quipped that these announcements are just name-sake and to garner public attention whereas it is practically impossible to execute, though he would be happy to even take turns and sit once in a while. He says that the shop is spread over 50,000 sq ft and employs over 400 employees and wonders how would the new Bill solve the issue of accommodating so many chairs for the staff.
Kamlesh Jain (name changed) runs a jewellery store at Broadway and says he gets over 100 customers a day and there are 6 staff members in his 800 sq ft store, so it’s impractical to provide seating for the staff. Large format Retail companies such as Big Bazaar, Lifestyle, Shoppers Stop are yet to announce their interest or otherwise for this Bill which is only tabled and yet to be added into the Act, making it a Law. The modern retail chains offer a large seating area which can be used by the employees during their coffee & lunch breaks. But to expect a stool or a chair in the retail trading area is not only heard of, but a silly idea at best. Neighbouring Kerala has tabled a similar bill 2 years back but the execution of the Act to the last word is debatable.
Murthy runs a small vegetarian restaurant in the southern suburbs of the city at Chromepet in the capacity of “Manager and In-Charge”. The owners do not interfere in the daily affairs and he has a free hand right from procurement of raw materials to day to-day upkeep and management, he boasts. But the Owners are prompt in collecting the daily collections and supervise the operations constantly, he says. There are 25 staff members with him, of which 12 are waiters, 3 Table supervisors, 7 kitchen staff and the rest, housekeeping. He wonders where and how will his staff be able to sit, if the new Act applies for restaurants as well. He feels that the job of a waiter or a retail staff is one that is chosen by each individual and no one is forced in to the trade in current times. He recalls how he came to Chennai in the late 90s through a recruitment drive in his native town in Tirunelveli when an “Agent” said he could earn up to Rs. 5,000 per month exclusion cost of accommodation and food. Delighted, the 20-something Murthy bid adieu to his extended family of 14 and took a bumpy bus ride to the erstwhile Madras. He was taken to T. Nagar where hundreds like him had descended and were trained for a couple of days ahead of a new sprawling retail store which was about to open. The store sold everything from stainless steel vessels to garments, plastic household items to gold jewellery.
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He had heard of more youth coming over in hordes to the city to take up similar jobs for a leading food chain which at one point, had 23 branches in the capital city. It was near bonded labour, he recalls, with the salary being directly sent to his family’s bank account, while he shared a dingy room with 7-8 others. But Murthy is happy today, that all of those days are gone. Over the past 10 years, semi-organised Retail has gained momentum and dignity of labour has improved, especially for those from the state, even though the menial jobs are now being pushed to migrant workers from the North.
“Will the TN Government provide chairs for all the Traffic Policemen who stand in the middle of the road during peak hours and have no place to sit during the non-peak hours? asks an agitated Rajendran (name changed on request) who runs a second generation textile showroom in old Velachery. “Many women staff come to our showroom to use the rest rooms. And the Government wants us to provide seating for my staff!”. He introduces his manager who has been with him for 16 years recruited by his late father. Other than him, there are at least a dozen staff who have worked for over a decade at his shop. He chose not to expand his business since both kids wanted to study abroad and didn’t wanted to pursue the business. He plans to wind up the business by the end of the financial year and settle at his native Mayawaram.
The Industry and the staff of retail companies are split with this announcement. What’s even the need to make such a pronouncement, when the Retail Industry is reeling under pressure due to Covid-19, with several hundreds of restaurants and retail shops shut since the last 12 months, asks a member of a powerful retail association who didn’t want to be named as he is very active on social media. We respect his/her feelings and shall not mention their name. But the point is extremely valid.