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Neoliberal Subjectivity, Enterprise Culture and New Workplaces: Organised Retail and Shopping Malls in India

With a case study of young workers in organised retail in shopping malls in Kolkata, this paper aims to illuminate how emerging labour processes as well as the organisation and culture of new workplaces in India today have far-reaching consequences beyond the economy and is transforming Indian society and politics in profound ways. With the adoption of market-driven and business-friendly public policy in India, new workplaces like shopping malls are playing a decisive part in crafting suitable workers and citizens, and in reshaping individual subjectivity, consonant with the needs of the market and of neoliberal governmentality for self-governing citizens and self-driven, pliant workers. The paper shows how young workers seek personal solutions to structurally or systemically generated problems in the economy and at the workplace; emphasise the responsibility, autonomy and agency of the self-driven, enterprising individual; disavow formal party politics and political engagement; negate the significance of the state in public policy; and allow both the government and employers to abdicate any responsibility for workers' and citizens' well-being.

REVIEW OF LABOUR

Neoliberal Subjectivity, Enterprise Culture and New Workplaces: Organised Retail and Shopping Malls in India

Nandini Gooptu

With a case study of young workers in organised retail in shopping malls in Kolkata, this paper aims to illuminate how emerging labour processes as well as the organisation and culture of new workplaces in India today have far-reaching consequences beyond the economy and is transforming Indian society and politics in profound ways. With the adoption of market-driven and business-friendly public policy in India, new workplaces like shopping malls are playing a decisive part in crafting suitable workers and citizens, and in reshaping individual subjectivity, consonant with the needs of the market and of neoliberal governmentality for self-governing citizens and self-driven, pliant workers. The paper shows how young workers seek personal solutions to structurally or systemically generated problems in the economy and at the workplace; emphasise the responsibility, autonomy and agency of the self-driven, enterprising individual; disavow formal party politics and political engagement; negate the significance of the state in public policy; and allow both the government and employers to abdicate any responsibility for workers’ and citizens’ well-being.

Nandini Gooptu (nandini.gooptu@qeh.ox.ac.uk) is at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford, Oxford.

1 Introduction

A
substantial body of theoretical literature, as well as empirical studies, on the western experience of economic restructuring and neoliberal transition have highlighted that the process of entrenchment of a market ethic, competition and commodification, of the kind now underway in India, has gone hand in hand with the emergence of an enterprise culture and new “technologies of governance” and of the “self”, notably the “enterprising self” (Burchell 1993; Rose 1992; Rose and Miller 2008, Chapter 7). Neoliberalism, David Harvey states,

is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade (Harvey 2005: 2).

Individual entrepreneurialism or enterprise is, however, not confined to business and the economic sphere. Analysts of neoliberal governmentality have emphasised the “generalisation of an ‘enterprise form’ of conduct or mode of activity to all forms of conduct”, encompassing the government, workplace, leisure, the family and, most importantly, the individual (Burchell 1993: 275; Rose and Miller 2008: 195). In these analyses, the ideal neoliberal “enterprising self” is goal-oriented, self-directed, committed to acquiring skills and competences required for selfadvancement; one who is optimistic, creative, takes initiatives, embraces opportunities, and seeks autonomy and self-fulfilment. Paul Heelas argues that the “enterprising self” is the chief figure in, what he calls, the cast of neoliberal characters, consisting inter alia the sovereign consumer and the active citizen (Heelas 1991). The sovereign consumer is not only to pursue individual selffulfilment and freedom through choice but also expected to exercise enterprising conduct by making responsible decisions in consumption and lifestyle. With the reorientation of the state and the curtailment of its welfare and social sector functions, the enterprising neoliberal citizen, as an independent political subject, is supposed to be self-reliant, self-governed and self-disciplined, prepared to take responsibility for his or her own well-being and for managing risks and vulnerability (O’Malley 1996). The generalised acceptance or universalisation of this norm of the individualised “enterprising self” contributes to neoliberal subjectivity or sense of self and conforms to the logic of neoliberal policy and governmentality, in which responsible, self-regulating autonomous individuals govern themselves

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in the context of a reconceptualised state project committed to a market economy.

In comparison with this wider literature, the social and cultural processes accompanying India’s economic liberalisation and its impact on individual identity and subjectivity, and on social and political perceptions and attitudes, have attracted limited academic attention, with the exception of consumerism and consumer culture, usually focused on urban middle classes. There is little analysis of the multiple modalities of moulding of workers and citizens, in a context where the state is being re-engineered from an interventionist institution to a regulatory, pluralist one, primarily as the enabler of the market and of business, with a secondary role, increasingly shared with private entities, in the provision of public goods and services (Chandhoke 2003; Kohli 2006; Rudolph and Rudolph 2001). This paper seeks to address these issues through an analysis of work and employment in one of the new workplaces that have emerged in the context of India’s economic liberalisation, viz, organised retail and shopping malls. The aim is to shed light on the role of emerging labour processes, organisation of work and new workplace cultures in shaping neoliberal subjectivities.

The workplace is, of course, a key institutional site for the production of identity and a sense of self. A burgeoning literature on cultures of work and labour suggests that some of the most dramatic changes relating to neoliberalism and enterprise culture have occurred in the realm of work with profound implications for character and personality (Bauman 1998, 2000, Chapter 4; Beck 2000; Castells 2000; Rose and Miller 2008; Chapter 7; Sennett 1998). There are divergent interpretations of the nature of such change, but debates have occurred over some major themes. One focus of discussion is the question of transition from a Fordist regime of relatively stable employment, mainly in manufacturing industries, to a post-Fordist milieu of flexible and contingent work, predominantly in the service sector (Jessop 1993, 2002). However, it is now acknowledged that this pattern of change affected only a small section of the workforce, even in advanced industrial economies, and flexibility and insecurity have been a feature of the work experience of large sections of the labour force (McDowell 2003). Importantly though, these workers received protection, in varying degrees, against unemployment and unstable labour markets through social policies of the state and government regulation of labour markets and labour relations – a process referred to as decommodification of labour. The major shift away from this is the new-found and unassailable normative acceptance of flexible labour use as a necessary precondition for economic growth, competitiveness, investment and business success, thus precluding or minimising any intervention in the labour market and legitimising the erosion or reconfiguration of social protection to meet the needs of the market, thereby accelerating the recommodification of labour (Holden 2003). The consequent heightened insecurity of labour, coupled with multiple, shifting employments, have fragmented and atomised the labour force and undermined collective action. Not only has this reduced the bargaining power of labour, but it has also led to an increasing “precarisation” of the experience of work (Bauman 2000: 163), particularly adversely affecting those on the lower rungs of the labour market. In the absence of public policy measures, the burden of risk from unstable employment has been privatised and come to be borne by individuals themselves, thus exacerbating labour market inequality and exploitation. It has been further argued, with reference to the question of privatised and individualised responses to risk that employers and government policy exaggerate the significance of risk as a tool of control. They tend to deploy a discourse of labour market uncertainty, risk and vulnerability in employment in order to restrain dissent, induce workers to exercise self-discipline at work, and drive them to motivate themselves to improve their own performance and productivity through intensification of work (Amoore 2004).

Individualised Responses and Personal Strategies

Most importantly, from the perspective of creation of neoliberal subjectivities, the developments outlined above have encouraged individualised responses and personal strategies for coping with the problems of work and employment (Bauman 1998, 2000; McCabe 2003; Sennett 1998). Individuals have been forced to exert themselves strenuously and incessantly, in an active, enterprising manner, in order to survive in the employment market. They have also had to strive to enhance their own employability, firstly by responding to market stimulus and adapting to market flexibility, and secondly, by acquiring skills, training and capacity as a lifelong project (McQuaid and Lindsay 2005). This includes the cultivation of enterprising personality traits as well as the development of “soft skills” of self-presentation and communication, which are now much valued in the job market, particularly in the increasingly important, and often increasingly feminised, service sector. In this context, the concept of embodied performance and commodification of the workers’ body has been used to refer to the fact that individual workers’ appearance, deportment and behaviour have become the objects of control by employers. The bodily performance of the worker is now a key feature of business strategy and an important customer relations instrument, particularly in the interactive service industry (McDowell 1997). In addition to the importance of labour market dynamics and labour processes, new types of “engineered” workplace cultures have emerged, with new innovative approaches to human resource management, such as non-hierarchical teamwork or various reward and incentive mechanisms. These have been argued to generate intense competition among employees, short-term self-interested thinking, “strategic, instrumental individualism” and “an individualised cultural orientation” (Izzy 2001; McCabe 2003; Sennett 1998). In these various ways, the worker, faced with the compulsions of an unprotected labour market and new forms of socialisation at the workplace, comes to be constituted as a neoliberal subject – individualised and responsible for his/her own self-presentation, self-government, self-management and self-advancement.

In a different vein, individual identity and notions of status and recognition previously linked with lifelong occupations or vocations, are now argued to have become disengaged from work due to the absence of permanent jobs, and have affected various sections of the workforce in very different ways. The personal

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relevance of work is believed to have been redefined in terms of consumption, satisfaction of lifestyle aspirations and even pleasure, while there has been an erosion of the idea of the work ethic as socially valuable, according to Bauman (1998, 2000). Rose argues, “work has been re-construed, not as a constraint upon freedom and autonomy, but as a realm in which working subjects can express their autonomy”. This is underpinned by the idea that, “we can become enterprising, take control of our careers, transform ourselves into high fliers, achieve excellence and fulfil ourselves not in spite of work but by means of work” (Rose 1992: 151-52). While these observations about the elision of work and pleasure apply to workers at the high end of the economy and to the beneficiaries of new types of lucrative corporate employment, for those who are at the lower end of the labour market, work is thought to have become burdensome and devoid of meaning (Bauman 1998).

Exploration in Indian Context

Taking a cue from these analyses of work and employment, this paper explores India’s new organised retail sector, based in the city of Kolkata, and examines whether and how far neoliberal subjectivities are taking shape in this new context of work. The scenario recounted so far, based primarily on western experiences, does not map neatly on to the Indian context, not least because unemployment and insecure employment are by no means novel features for vast sections of the Indian labour force in the era of economic liberalisation, and policies of state protection only ever affected a minority of the workforce. Nevertheless, the issues of the rise of individualism, personal coping mechanisms against risk and uncertainty, the pursuit of employability, the prominence of embodied performance, the relation between work, consumption and personal identity are of central relevance in addressing the key concern in this paper about the nature and extent of the creation of neoliberal subjectivities among workers. Moreover, the extent of normative universalisation of flexible labour, not just in government policy and employer strategy, but among workers themselves, requires investigation, as an important basis for a sea-change in attitudes to work practices and aspirations. This paper, thus, explores workers’ responses to challenges and opportunities presented by the dynamics of emerging labour markets and work organisation and by new forms of socialisation at the workplace. The discussion here is mainly focused on workers’ mentalities, perceptions and attitudes, but the first part of the paper sets the scene with an account of employment in organised retail, covering the themes of work opportunity, recruitment, retention and workplace practices.

Organised retail has been chosen for this study as representative of the new milieu of interactive service sector work now rapidly emerging in India. Economic liberalisation and the expansion of the consumer economy have precipitated a significant expansion of jobs in this sector, including sales, marketing and product promotion of diverse kinds; customer relations for the sale of both goods and new types of privatised services such as healthcare, professional education, insurance and banking; hospitality, catering and hotels; corporate event organisation; leisure and entertainment; travel agencies and airlines; and so

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on. Organised retail is by far the most important of these new service industries. This study is based in major retail outlets and shopping malls in three different locations in Kolkata, where over 45 shop employees were interviewed, either singly or in small groups of two to four. The interviews, lasting up to two hours, were conducted in the shops during less busy hours of the day, and covered a large supermarket and outlets selling garments, shoes, household goods, toys, cosmetics and accessories. Openended questions were asked about workers’ aspirations, career plans and strategies, their reasons for entering the retail sector, the problems and prospects of retail employment, their everyday experience as workers, and their opinions of politics, democracy and the state. All interviews were conducted in the absence of employers or managers and anonymity was promised to all respondents. With the help of mall facilities managers, who are not employers, around 200 questionnaires were distributed, with questions on family and educational background and on workers’ views on ideal jobs, future aspirations, political parties and government, development policies and consumption habits. Over one-fifth of the questionnaires were returned, in fully or partially completed form.1 In addition, managers of the local branches of major retailers, a human resources officer of a major retail chain, an executive of a training and recruitment agency as well as mall facilities managers were also interviewed, none of whom consented to being quoted or their identity divulged. All this was supplemented with non-participant observations in shops.

2 The Organised Retail Sector

India’s shining new retail sector is celebrated as the “sunshine” industry at the heart of the country’s growing economy. Historically, retail trading has been a vital and important element of the Indian economy, second only to agriculture in providing employment. More recently, though, the key area of retail boom has not been in traditional “bazaars” or small business, family firms and shops, but in purpose-built shopping malls with franchise outlets and chain stores of international and national brands, major departmental stores and large super- and hypermarkets, as well as multiplex cinemas and food courts. Malls in Kolkata attract daily up to 10,000 visitors on average and over 1,00,000 a day during special sale or promotional events. Organised retail is characterised by formal labour contracts, often with statutory employment benefits, as opposed to informal work in shops and small businesses of “traditional” retail. According to a White Paper prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers in November 2005, at the behest of the Confederation of Indian Industry (2005) and presented to the government of India, the retail sector accounted for

10% of India’s GDP and was growing at a pace of 5% annually. The share of the organised sector in retail trade was only 3% at the time, but was expected to reach 10% by 2010. Other recent estimates suggest that this share would go up to 20% in 2010, providing employment to 2.2 million predominantly young people, who are favoured in retail jobs (cited in, Shabnam and Paul G D 2008). Although the number of jobs in organised retail is evidently still very limited, it is well known that turnover is extremely high and retention is a significant problem. This kind of short-term employment implies that a far larger number of young people have worked in the retail sector than the actual number of jobs available. Thus the number of people exposed to an experience of work in retail is far higher than suggested by employment figures. Alongside Business Processes Outsourcing (BPO) offices, call centres and the IT sector, these malls have been proclaimed to be the site of youth empowerment, with employment opportunities primarily for young people in sales, merchandising, finance and marketing, at the top of the labour hierarchy, to packers, loaders, cleaning, security and car-park staff at the bottom. Importantly, unlike IT and knowledge parks, the retail sector provides employment to men and women from both working class and lower middle class backgrounds. I focus on those who work in sales and marketing.

Most major retailers employ workers on the shop floor as sales assistants on a permanent formal contract, with a short probation period of about six months, and offer them statutory employment benefits, including provident fund, pensions and gratuity, and sometimes offer additional health and accident insurance benefits. The contracts can, of course, be terminated with a fixed period of notice, usually one month, on either side, and it appears to be an endemic trend that workers move from one job to another within the retail sector in search of higher pay, or move out of this sector altogether after a few years. Similarly employers do not shy away from dismissing under-performing or surplus staff. All workers interviewed in this study were direct employees of retailers, but many mentioned that part-time and contingent workers2 are also frequently employed for short periods at peak times or for specific product promotion and sales events, through contractors and recruitment agencies. Some of the workers interviewed had gained their first foothold in retail through such fixed-term work, and having thus enhanced their curriculum vitae by gaining some limited experience, they subsequently succeeded in moving into direct employment with permanent contracts.

Background of Workers

Typically, workers are basic arts or science graduates, a few have high school degrees, and some possess qualifications in commerce and accountancy. Depending on the location of shops, recruits would be expected to speak English along with the local language. In malls with less affluent or less literate customer catchment areas or in stores selling cheaper products for the less affluent, the English language requirement is less important. Desirable characteristics of employees are a well-groomed appearance, good interpersonal communication skills, a pleasant personality as well as drive and initiative, while also being of an accommodative and cooperative nature. I was told about a young man who turned up in a crumpled shirt for his job interview, and when asked why, he had responded that immaculate appearance was difficult to maintain when travelling by crowded public transport. Despite being considered well qualified and better than some of the other candidates, this man was not appointed, since it was felt he was “being too clever” and was likely to stir up trouble and even set himself up as a “leader” of the much derided trade union type. Potential workers are carefully vetted to establish whether they would be willing to make a sufficient personal investment in the job in question and whether they appear to be committed to a serious career, which would, in turn, ensure that they would be prepared to work hard and with commitment. Young people are uniformly favoured and those above 27 or 28 would be rarely employed, except in “back-office” accounts posts. The young are believed to be malleable, more easily trainable and expected to have fewer fixed or strong ideas, and thus expected to be effectively moulded to the needs of the job. From the employers’ perspective, supply of labour is usually not a problem, since a large pool of candidates is always waiting for jobs. However, the financial and organisational cost of training new recruits can be high, and so retention is a major worry. In addition, employers are concerned to raise efficiency and productivity, in order to meet sales targets as well as to minimise “shrinkage” or loss of merchandise from the shop floor.

Training to Workers

Workers are usually provided with thorough training for four to six weeks. Following the initial formal training sessions, on-thejob training on the shop floor is also provided by supervisors and managers, in some cases by peer coaches. In the course of their formal training, they receive instruction first on retail business, including basic finances and accounting, calculation of costs, profits and loss, market conditions, merchandising, techniques of sales maximisation. These courses are partly designed to impart an understanding of the contexts within which specific sales targets are generated and have to be met. In addition, they acquire “domain” knowledge about the brand in question and the products and services to be sold. Second, they are given an extensive grounding in retail processes, since retail is driven by a large number of routinised processes that have to be repeatedly executed daily, ranging from customer transactions to stock display and checking, cash counter protocols, opening and closing down tills, dealing with damaged or returned goods, disposal of outdated food items, employees’ entry and exit routines in and out of shops. Third, workers are taught “soft skills” of self-presentation, grooming, improved comportment, customer care, anticipating customers’ needs, basic curtsies and polite vocabulary, interpersonal skills, handling difficult situations, dealing with demanding customers, team-working and team-management, developing a non-complaining positive attitude, and methods of coping with stress.

Fourth, workers are given human resource-oriented information, to a greater or lesser degree, about the conditions of their employment, rights and entitlements, job obligations and expectations, the regime of rewards and incentives, as well as career counselling and information about the prospects of promotion and upward mobility. Some retailers emphasise this aspect of training as a significant tool to encourage retention and enhance workers’ motivation, by highlighting the attractive opportunities offered by the job and emphasising how a particular job is not merely a temporary lucrative employment, but should be valued as a building block in a career. The aim here is to create and nurture aspirations and stoke ambitions, and thus enhance motivation. The importance of excellence in performance and of hard work over long hours as well as the need for a single-minded and selfish focus on career development are drilled into the workers. These are presented as fundamental, unquestionable requirements

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of a highly competitive and hence uncertain job market, if workers are to build a career in sales, marketing and customer relations and thus ultimately successfully sustain themselves and their families. Of course, the Indian job market has, for the most part, been uncertain and the threat of unemployment has never been far. However, the discursive construction of this fact has undergone a change. The challenging and competitive job market appears to be presented as a natural corollary or an inevitable product of a globalised and liberalised economy, and workers are asked to manage the new challenges in the job market through their own individual effort, without any mention of government policy or employers’ responsibility. Moreover, it is suggested that the problems of labour market uncertainty can be managed because new opportunities are available, but in order to avail of those opportunities in a competitive environment, uncomplaining hard work is necessary. The regime of intensive, hard work is contrasted with what is portrayed as an obsolete form of easy “9 to 5 jobs”, where a salary could be drawn without much exertion, in the days when competition was limited with fewer contenders in the job market, and also when opportunities were limited for career improvement and upward mobility, thus rendering hard work redundant. It is emphasised that in the liberalised and more efficient and competitive economy, it is no longer possible to earn a slothful living. The message is conveyed that the future is bright for those who work the hardest, survive well in a competitive and rapidly changing employment market and can capitalise on emerging opportunities in new sectors of the economy.

Ethos of Hard Work

Not surprisingly perhaps, workers are willing to work hard – the harder one works and shows results in sales and other targets, the more one gets paid; so they have espoused a performanceoriented approach to employment and remuneration. It appears that, in contrast to conceptions of the work ethic associated with social or moral duty or dignity at work, workers here embrace an ethos of hard work for its utilitarian ability to benefit the individual by enhancing income, job security and ultimately employment generation. Hard work, also called “work culture” is much valued here, because previous generations of workers in various sectors of the economy are seen to have alienated employers and investors with an absence of work culture – that is, by asking for high pay without doing a commensurate amount of work, and thus causing a detrimental decline in employment. Workers thus seem to have internalised the perspective of their employers and they are prepared to work hard without the need for direct pressure, surveillance or discipline by supervisors or managers. This lays the foundation for the crafting of the self-governed and self-disciplined, enterprising neoliberal subject.

To concretise their message of future career development opportunities, some major retailers offer their employees the opportunity to enrol in on-the-job training programmes, which could lead to their promotion to managerial levels and may also enable them to work towards higher degree qualifications in sales and management. Workers are initially employed for shop floor work and on the basis of their performance, may be promoted first to supervisory levels, either within a store or by transferring

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them to another store of the retail chain. They would normally be required to attend additional training sessions, and go through formal assessments, before being promoted. Subject to impressive performance at the supervisory level, at the next stage, employees may be competitively selected to receive further training to acquire suitable qualifications for management posts, including, in some cases, graduate degrees from recognised universities through distance learning programmes. They are relieved of their normal duties for their examinations and to attend training sessions, and employers may cover the fees and cost of further training. However, only a small handful of employees are likely to climb this ladder, since the opportunities and management level vacancies are few and far between. Moreover, such opportunities for promotion and advanced training for management level jobs beyond the supervisory level are only provided by a few major retailers. In most cases, workers have to rely on their own resources and time to acquire additional training or higher degrees, and promotion to managerial levels is very rare indeed. The vast majority of those interviewed and those who returned questionnaires expressed their desire to acquire further skills for career development, but many explained that lack of money as well as time, due to long of hours of work, deterred them.

Salaries and Competition

Basic salaries are very low in retail jobs, between Rs 2,000 and Rs 7,000 per month, but employers seek to provide various rewards and incentives to motivate workers, discourage rapid turnover and improve performance. Good performance is recognised variously in different stores, such as through the award of badges and stars or appointment as peer coaches for new and junior staff, as well as through token increments in emoluments and shop vouchers or discount coupons for subsidised purchase of products. More tangibly, sales teams for particular product ranges or all members of staff of a store are collectively awarded monetary rewards for meeting targets for sales or for enrolling store card members, as well as for minimising stock “shrinkage” or pilferage of goods. In some stores, to receive a reward, all sales teams are required to meet their own targets, in order to reach the overall or cumulative target for the store. These target-oriented and performance-based rewarding methods inevitably lead to intense peer pressure on every employee to maximise their performance, and also contribute to mutual informal monitoring of each others’ performance among workers. For certain products, such as electrical and electronics goods or cosmetic items, workers have to explain their benefits and qualities to persuade a customer to purchase them. In such cases, individuals, rather than whole teams, are sometimes offered rewards for successfully “closing a sale”. This generates severe competition among colleagues to meet their personal targets. Either way, an environment is created, whether through peer pressure or the compulsion to compete, in which workers feel motivated to work harder and discipline themselves, even without direct surveillance or control by management and supervisory staff.

Quite apart from rewards and incentives, to help improve motivation, performance and retention, management and human resource staff attempt to develop close relationships with workers in a paternalistic or guardianship mode, emphasise their caring role in ensuring workers’ well-being and offer them professional and personal counselling to cope with pressures at work and beyond. If workers appear to be facing difficulties at home that are affecting their work, members of their family are invited to have discussions with store and personnel managers. Under-performing workers are called in for counselling and in some cases, another member of staff is designated as their “buddy” to help them through difficult periods. Families of workers, who would normally not shop at these expensive stores, are, in fact, invited at least once a year to visit the store to meet management and staff, to become acquainted with these new and unfamiliar workplaces and to help understand the nature of work and appreciate the opportunities provided by these kinds of employment. This is described as a means of linking the “family at the store” with the “family at home”. Events of this nature are cast in terms of activities that embrace or connect with the wider, extended “family” of the store. Fictive kinship metaphors of this kind are often invoked by managers to portray a store as a community.

Managers emphasise that they have a casual and friendly relationship with their staff in contrast to hierarchical workplaces like old style retail with its “colonial” mode of control, which appears to suggest that new retail is thought to be consistent with modern democratic political culture. This is reminiscent of Rose and Miller’s contention that the organisation of the workplace “incorporate[s] wider concerns about democracy” and “prevailing conceptions of the nature, rights and obligations of persons” (Rose and Miller 2008: 175). Managers point out that there are various forms of regular interaction between them and the staff that contribute to a close and informal relationship. Regular “fun-at-work” events, amusements, entertainment, parties, discos, fashion shows, joke and poetry competitions, talent shows of dance and music, and plays are organised in-store with staff participation, and trips to cinemas, picnics, restaurants and leisure activities are undertaken, where all members of staff interact freely. In one store, for instance, on Independence Day, workers’ staged a short play enacting patriotic episodes from the freedom struggle, in which the fair complexioned store manager was cast as a white British official, who was assassinated by a worker playing the role of a well-known Bengali freedom fighter. These activities that mix work and leisure are also designed to relieve the stress and pressure of work and to alleviate the monotony of the routinised process-driven repetitive nature of retail work.

The “engineered” culture of the retail workplace then is expressed by the management in the idiom of a happy, compassionate, non-hierarchical family of hard-working, mutually supportive, highly motivated members. The family nurtures every individual and enables them to realise their dreams, aspirations and career goals. Moreover, a regime of incentives is instituted to act as the tool to promote self-government and self-discipline in the worker.

3 Workers’ Perspectives

How do workers respond to the pressures and pleasures of the workplace and to the prospects offered by retail employment?

Men and women have both joined retail employment, and despite the large and visible presence of women, retail is not seen as

50 an overtly feminised sphere of soft skills and docility, which would compromise masculinity and would thus be considered undesirable by young men, contrary to findings in the west (McDowell 2000). Although the soft skills of interpersonal communication are valued in retail, these are not associated with feminine qualities. Instead, they are interpreted in terms of assertive and extrovert public speaking, usually in English as a status enhancing language, as well as with smartness and a clever ability to persuade customers, similar to Bollywood hero-style winning “dialogue”, according to one male worker. Jobs in organised retail, as opposed to traditional retail, carry a high status as one of the new and modern forms of work emerging in India’s burgeoning economy today. Workers here also see themselves as sales and marketing personnel rather than simply as servants or employees, as in the case of “old” retail. Their job titles, such as customer care assistant or customer sales associate, designate them as staff of corporate firms, rather than as mere lower level karmchari (employee) – a term used to refer to workers in traditional retail or in lower government services, but is never heard in shopping malls. Moreover, “service” employment, referring to non-manual work, is highly valued by lower middle class and upwardly mobile working class and rural families.

Most workers in retail, both men and women, come from such backgrounds, with at least high school education, but usually with college degrees, some being first generation graduates. In the recent past, youth of this class, unless they had significant higher qualifications, would have been beset by the problem of “educated” youth unemployment, but retail jobs now avoid both unemployment and the possibility of a slide down into the ranks of the poor. Their fathers were, or are still, engaged variously in lower level government “service” or salaried jobs in private companies and firms, in small business such as tailoring, petty shop ownership, or in agricultural and farming occupations. Those coming from farming and rural backgrounds appeared to be poorer than the others, and often with lower educational qualifications, but eager to find a route out of rural occupations.

Reasons to Work in Organised Retail

Economic compulsion, the need to earn to support families, lack of qualifications or experience to compete effectively in increasingly crowded job markets, and the absence of any alternative work, particularly due to the disappearance of secure job opportunities in the public sector, were cited as the reason for entering retail by many, particularly those from poorer backgrounds and with only school education. While they felt retail work offered very low remuneration and required long hours of relentless attention and demanding personality attributes, they also explained that they were glad to be employed at all and were thus minded to stay in retail employment for as long as possible. They would prefer government employment or jobs that provide longterm security, but as such opportunities were not forthcoming, they were content with retail. Those coming from somewhat better off lower middle class families, with graduate degrees and with fathers in small business or in government or private service, explained that, although they had no immediate compulsion to support their families, they joined retail because this had opened

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up new employment opportunities for young people, who would otherwise have been unemployed and unable to enter the labour market at all. In order to gain this first foothold into the job market, even though they were graduates, often with degrees in commerce or accountancy, they were willing to work in jobs that did not value their educational qualifications and did not pay well. They explained that the opening up of job opportunities in recent years in various interactive services has stimulated young people to seek employment from an early age, even when they did not need to support their families. Such early entry into the labour market was considered beneficial in their long-term career strategy. It enabled them to earn an independent income to meet their own needs without relying on the family, as well as to finance increasingly more expensive and privatised further education and training, which would help them to ascend the career ladder.

There appears to be a class-differentiated evaluation of the worth of retail work in shaping future careers, and gender-based variations in the meaning and efficacy of such work. Sales, marketing and management are seen by many men as a desirable and promising field of work for their future career, and retail work is seen as particularly relevant in enabling them to acquire some valuable skills, “exposure” and experience, early in their working life. They feel able to access information pertaining to business and marketing, as well as develop networks of contact, wherever possible. These, they feel, would compensate for the absence of family “connections” and “sources”, on whom more affluent middle class or upper class youth are believed to rely, in order to enter sales and management jobs. Many men, with or without a background in small business and shopkeeping, consider business as an occupation that contributes to the growth of the national economy, enhances personal status, provides a degree of financial well-being and above all gives independence, without the need to be at the beck and call of others. They aspire to set up their own business or improve their family business, and hence, they find retail work particularly useful in providing insight into “modern” business and the “new” economy. Some even hope, unrealistically perhaps, to earn and save enough money through their retail employment to help them capitalise their business in the future. Those from relatively more well-off backgrounds seem to be more optimistic about employment prospects or in their ability to embark on business ventures in the future, while the less literate or those from poorer, agricultural background often express worries about the limits to upward mobility in retail sales and marketing, unless one acquires further qualifications, contacts or exceptional experience to ascend to management levels, not to mention access to capital.

Gender-Based Variations

For women, large numbers of whom, both married and unmarried, have joined retail, their work is seen variously as a source of autonomy and independence from their family; a method to avoid dependence on their male siblings or to gain status and recognition within the natal family by contributing to household income; a chance to supplement their husband’s income and enhance their marital lifestyle and consumption habits as well as to carve out a more secure and less subordinate position within

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the marital family; an opportunity to learn valuable skills and gain experience for unmarried women who would be able to earn their own living later in their married life should their marriage turn sour, even if they had to give up work after marriage.

No matter what their gender or background however, a majority of workers felt that the job market for their generation, compared to the previous one, was less secure and more competitive, and they were required to work harder. Most acknowledged that more employment opportunities were available, but few of these offered stability or permanence. As a consequence, they have adopted a proactive, individualistic, enterprising and responsible approach to building their career, which they feel they have to advance by dint of their own effort and resourcefulness, without relying on any external help or societal and public resources and support, including that of the government. They have used their initiative to capitalise on job opportunities in retail and most do their utmost to gain further qualifications by enrolling in earlymorning or late-evening classes or in correspondence courses. They seek to prepare themselves to adapt to flexible and unstable labour markets and to minimise the risk of future unemployment by enhancing their employability by gaining work experience as well as training and other skills.

Contradictory Sentiments

Young retail workers express contradictory sentiments about their work, and evaluate their experience in both positive and negative terms. On the positive side, many argue that this is a desirable and enjoyable form of work. The wider sociological literature on work in the west, as mentioned above, has suggested that the value and meaning of work now is construed through its capacity to produce pleasure, satisfaction and self-fulfilment, but this is believed to affect mainly the upper echelons. However, the evidence here suggests that this construal is, to some extent, prevalent among lower level workers too. Many refer to a sense of freedom and openness, for they see their lives as being more liberated and less constrained, less insular or limited than their parents. Those coming from better off backgrounds also expressed their gratification at the range of lifestyle choices and opportunities available to them, and exposure to a variety of experiences, including entertainment and recreation, consumption practices and habits that the previous generation would not have even dreamt of. This is a specific understanding of youth empowerment, and a notion of freedom, focused on lifestyle concepts, novel experiences and individual fulfilment. Work here is not seen as the basis of rights or dignity, but as an instrument to gain access to a better, freer life and consumption.

There are other elements that workers find appealing and satisfying about their jobs: the range and variety of interactions with customers and colleagues; the challenge and excitement of winning over customers with clever and polished conversation, often using the polite conventions of speech of upper class society or corporate offices; architecturally distinctive, western style edifices as their workplace; a physically comfortable, clean, aesthetically pleasing, and usually air-conditioned, modern working environment that is a far cry from traditional retail in markets and bazaars; smart, westernised corporate clothing and English as the medium of communication with their customers whenever possible as status enhancing features; the fact that they work in what is now publicly celebrated as a major node of economic growth.

While workers uniformly commented, and some even bemoaned, that they do not or cannot take part in family or social events and neighbourhood or community activities due to extremely long hours of work, yet many enthused about their workplace colleagues as friends, and about the sense of being a family that prevails within particular stores or within a mall more generally among co-workers. Interestingly and tellingly, they seldom included managers within the ambit of this extended familial conception or mentioned their guardianship or paternalistic and caring role. Nevertheless, their sense of bonhomie and camaraderie seems to owe much to the institutionalised promotion of “fun-at-work” and a “family atmosphere” as part of the engineered culture of the workplace, which evidently engenders the perception that working in malls is about “fun and fashion”, as one person put it. He took his alliteration of fun and fashion further to claim that these jobs also promise “funda”, a term used by students and young people to allude to profundity or intellectual weight and depth, thus suggesting retail work experience to be not only entertaining, but also intellectually rewarding and engaging. Not only fun, fraternity and mental stimulation, but also intimate personal relationships of love, courtship and, even at times, marriage, seem to revolve very largely around malls for these young people.

Colonisation of Workers’ Lives

This picture of retail work painted by workers might suggest a happy workforce with their lives focused in the apparently benign space of work. However, it also points to a colonisation of individual workers’ lives (Izzy 2001) through institutionalised strategies to enmesh work and pleasure and the corporate deployment of the rhetoric of the family, as well as through such systemic factors as long working hours. These subsume personal relations within the compass of work, and preclude the possibility of community-based activities or wider social engagement. Importantly though, without coercion and force, through new forms of work organisation and workplace culture, a new kind of worker appears to have come into being, equipped with a mindset that prioritises and privileges work as the focus of their personal, mental and moral universe. This experience early in life no doubt has a long-term impact on the subjectivity of these young workers, who can be expected to become work-oriented individuals, ideally suited to the needs of an economy based on competition and a market ethic, and catering to the demands of the private corporate sector for fully committed workers.

Negative Features

Retail work is, however, not seen only, or even primarily, as a positive experience, but workers present a substantial catalogue of its negative features. Low pay, long hours, monotony, and physical exhaustion, notwithstanding the multifarious happinessinducing measures deployed by management, are frequently mentioned. Perhaps, the most important factor that weighs on workers’ minds is the lack of a career structure or absence of future prospects and promotions. While their basic salary is low, they are often able to take home a relatively good pay packet if targets are met. This enhanced remuneration is felt to be sufficient for the moment for young and inexperienced workers, with limited qualifications. However, all seem to agree that such pay is not enough to start or sustain a family comfortably, or to make long-term life plans. Moreover, despite the assurances of employers about further in-house training and performance based promotion, these rarely appear to come to fruition for anybody but a very small and exceptional minority. While some fresh new entrants reported how they eagerly anticipated a rapid rise through the ranks, more seasoned workers scoffed at the hollow promises of management as a cynical ploy to elicit hard work and good performance from workers by dangling a mythic carrot. In the absence of what they see as a clear career structure, rapid job mobility and taking risks to abandon a job to seek better opportunities elsewhere, constitute an important feature of their career strategy, and their mode of exercising their agency. Workers like to gather experience in one place and then move on to other jobs, leveraging their strengths to gain better pay in the short or medium run. In this way, flexibility and mobility are normalised and deployed as an essential career strategy. These young people evidently subscribe to the idea of flexible work as an asset rather than as a constraint and they espouse an ethos of job mobility, not because they have directly or consciously bought into, or have been indoctrinated into, neoliberal dogmas, but because their context of work leads them to adopt this kind of pragmatic strategy.

Stress and pressures on the shop floor is a recurring theme raised by workers. In this context, friendship and fellow-feeling, if not skin-deep, seems to remain confined to the realm of sociability and “fun”, and engender little shop floor cooperation. Workers complain of the tyranny of targets and consequent peer pressure, as well as competition and skulduggery among colleagues to gain the approval of supervisors and managers, with individual performance reviews always looming large. They feel they are always under scrutiny – their performance, behaviour and appearance, not only by supervisory staff, but also by co-workers, since every individual worker needs to perform well to achieve collective or team-based targets. They have to watch their step and be on their guard at all times. They feel they are always on display like the goods they sell, pointing to a process of embodiment of work performance and commodification of the body. The need to meet targets creates two very different types of pressures. When the store is busy and full of customers, they have to work at a frenetic pace to stock and arrange shelves or to maximise throughput at the cash counter. When the store is empty and “footfalls” are low, they are seized with anxiety about the danger of not meeting targets, or feel compelled to compete with colleagues to attend to the few customers who do appear, in order to demonstrate their proactive disposition, with the next performance review in mind.

Dismissal and Forced Departure

Although contracts are permanent, the possibility of dismissal at short notice, even arbitrary dismissal, is ever present for underperformance, or even for inappropriate behaviour or neglecting

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to dress properly. Even if they are not dismissed outright, some workers’ complain they are sometimes forced to leave voluntarily because of the oppressive behaviour of supervisory staff or managers whose wrath they have incurred for some reason, and who lumber them with the worst and excessive tasks, and find faults with them. Some workers, including those on probation, felt that they bore the brunt of such supervisory oppression, when store managers needed to shed staff to avoid making a loss and thus failing to meet their profit target, which would, in turn, compromise the financial rewards of all staff, including supervisors and managers. In such cases, managers and supervisors wanted them to leave of their own volition, because they did not wish to fire staff directly in order to avoid tarnishing the store’s supportive image and to avert an adverse impact on the morale of other members of staff. These workers felt that management forced the most vulnerable members of staff to bear the cost of the store’s potential or actual losses by compelling them to leave, albeit indirectly. Other workers meekly connived at such oppression because, in the short term, their earnings would be affected if targets were not met, even though they felt this was unjust and feared that they too might one day face a similar predicament. In this context, the claim of management to be caring, of course, is seen as hollow conceit. One worker said that employers and managers treat them as so many crows at whom they would throw grains and whom they then expected to flock and squabble over the pickings among themselves; if some were not fierce enough to survive in this fight, they would sooner or later have to abandon their work or even make an exit from the job market.

Instinct for Self-preservation

Workers express their discontent with the system, and some even vent remorse privately for letting down their colleagues. Yet, they feel they have no choice but to yield to their instinct of selfpreservation and act in self-centred ways that would enable them to survive in the workplace. Evidently, this system of rewards and incentives structurally predisposes workers to respond selfishly with an instrumental, strategic rationality and consolidates an individualised subjectivity, of the kind that has been criticised in the sociological literature on work for causing the “corrosion of character” (Sennett 1998).

Despite their many grievances and a sense of exploitation, workers exercise restraint and refrain from venting discontent or complaints at work, for any individual expression of protest would jeopardise their standing at work, while collective protest is impossible in a context where each worker, of necessity, fends for him/herself. When they do feel outraged, usually because they have themselves been excessively unjustly treated, they simply choose to leave. A manager described this kind of behaviour as “mature” and a sensible contrast to the erstwhile political tendency of organised labour, mainly in manufacturing industries and state employment, to take recourse to collective protest against dismissals, invoking workers’ rights. Indeed, workers themselves agree with this perspective. No one evaluated the negative elements of their work experience through the prism of rights – either workers’ rights or fundamental or citizenship

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rights. This is possible partly because the concept of rights at work is often associated with working class political militancy and trade unionism, which these workers stoutly reject.

Disdain of Party Politics

They are highly sceptical and even dismissive of political organisation or collective action to define or defend rights or to regulate workplace relations. They are disinterested in the fact that labour struggles have been historically concerned with issues of working hours or arbitrary dismissal. They are either unaware of or choose to relegate to oblivion the fact that past labour struggles had sought to mitigate the vagaries of market fluctuations and alleviate the problems of unemployment by advocating government intervention in the labour market, provision of unemployment benefits and social protection. They also appear to have no appreciation of the significance of current policy and political debates on the government acting as the employer of last resort in India by guaranteeing minimum employment and income in rural areas. They firmly believe that labour activism, and political action more generally, fail to bring about improvement in working conditions. On the contrary, workplace politics, as well as wider party political meddling and government intervention in industry and trade are believed to have choked off investment and constrained the economy in the past, and so ultimately precipitated a loss of employment opportunities.

“Politics” in all its forms, including democratic party politics, is anathema to them as either down-right detrimental or simply irrelevant to their life chances for historically failing to bring about economic development and suitable employment opportunities. “Politics” is also rejected as a sphere of activity driven by opportunism and hunger for power. However, they argue that they do continue to vote, to ensure that politicians are punished or held in check, and not permitted to visit even worse fate on common people or turn to authoritarianism, arbitrary rule and even more unaccountable forms of power. Some argue that as a mark of rejection of “sham” democratic politics that does nothing to improve the lives of ordinary people, young people should keep their heads down, work hard and concentrate on getting ahead in their own lives. An ethic of hard work and personal integrity is here posited against party politics, which is seen to lack ethics, public-spirit and moral vocation and which fails to deliver public policy. Honest work, personal self-advancement, and career development in pursuit of a better life for oneself is here juxtaposed against opportunistic party politics, fuelling a merely procedural democracy that does not deliver the goods for the so-called common people. Indeed, a single-minded commitment to hard work devoid of political activity or engagement of any kind is conceived as a critique of a culture of self-serving politicians and corruption-ridden politics. Thus, instead of countenancing collective mobilisation or industrial action, retail workers prefer to vote with their feet if they feel dissatisfied with employment practices.

Employers’ high-handedness or onerous and exploitative working conditions are seen as wrong and many express anger, but there is no moral outrage about this nor any sense of violation of rights at the lack of job security or economic vulnerability.

Workers’ remedy is to beat a solitary retreat and go elsewhere. individual performance based rewards. Workplace organisation In this way, they assume the entire burden of coping with the and culture in retail help to socialise the workers from an early risks and uncertainties of the market, and they thus craft them-stage into the values of personal initiative, enterprise, hard work, selves as self-governing individuals responsible for their own individual responsibility, and self-discipline. At the same time, economic predicament, without acknowledging the structural the compulsions of workplace culture stimulate individualism factors that cause their vulnerability. Above all, at the normative and a self-centred pursuit of one’s own interests, discourage colevel, they allow the government and the state, as well as, em-operation and collective action, including workplace dissent. ployers to abdicate any responsibility for workers’ and citizens’ They seek personal solutions to structurally or systemically geneconomic well-being. erated problems in the economy and at the workplace, and they

disavow political activism, renounce any engagement with 4 Conclusions formal party politics, and condemn democracy as the self-serving The beneficial impact of the retail sector on employment genera-tool of the corrupt politician. This does not imply a benign tion is frequently emphasised by the votaries of organised retail. “apolitical” orientation, but rather a particular articulation of However, far more than its job creation capacity, the significance political attitudes that conceives of a minimalist state in labour of retail work lies in its impact on the attitudes and perceptions of policy and more broadly in the sphere of economic regulation, the large number of workers who pass through shopping malls as and negates the significance of the state in public policy. They the first stepping stone in their career path. With the adoption of emphasise the responsibility, autonomy and agency of the selfmarket-driven and business-friendly public policy in India, new driven, enterprising individual, who is prepared to work within workplaces like organised retail shopping malls are playing a the constraints of a competitive and unstable market economy decisive part in crafting suitable workers and citizens, and in re-and within the terms set by the dominant private corporate shaping individual subjectivity, consonant with the needs of the sector as the providers of employment. Evidently, these workers market and neoliberal governmentality for self-governing citizens have little or no expectation or sense of entitlement vis-a-vis the and self-driven, pliant workers. Retail jobs attract a large number state and the political system. They believe in the efficacy of of young people who do not simply concentrate on eking out a self-reliance and individualism that have been argued to be key meagre living, but rapidly seize the initiative to develop an enter-traits of neoliberalism in the theoretical literature. As this case prising career strategy in a number of ways. They augment their of young workers shows, the emerging dynamics of the labour future employability by capitalising on the opportunities offered market as well as the organisation and culture of new types of to gain knowledge of sales, marketing and business, and they workplaces in India today have far-reaching consequences motivate themselves to work hard to maximise their earnings by beyond the economy and is transforming Indian society and responding to the regime of targets and incentives as well as politics in profound ways.

Notes

1 These questionnaires pertain to outlets selling garments, shoes, household goods, toys, cosmetics and accessories. A substantial number of questionnaires were also returned by staff of food courts, but these have not been included in this paper.

2 These are employed through “third parties” or contractors, and are popularly referred to as “voucher staff” or those not formally entered on a store’s employment registers, but appointed with temporary vouchers.

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