November 17, 2007

Moving Up in Mumbai

Humble Jobs at the Mall Are Lifting
Legions of Indians Out of Poverty
November 17, 2007; Page A1

Mumbai, India

As an elevator operator in a dingy apartment building, Mohamed Shaikh used to ponder ways to get himself out of his mind-numbing job and his family out of the slums. Vishal Bhatade once worked 12 hours a day cutting cloth in a garment factory for less than $50 a month. Rakesh Gundeti used to worry his family wouldn't make it after his father was laid off and his mother developed cancer.

On a muggy Mumbai morning recently, the three young men left their cramped homes in slums around the city and headed to their work stations on the top floor of a mall housed in a former textile mill. There, in the men's denim section of a Pantaloon department store, they joined an economic drama sweeping across India.

For nine hours a day, six days a week, they folded jeans, stocked shelves and explained the different styles of pants to their middle-class customers. Their wage: roughly $1,600 a year, with the prospect of regular raises and promotions -- much more than any of their parents earned and double the annual average salary in India.

Eric Bellman
Mohamed Shaikh grew up in the slums in the shadow of the Phoenix Mills, the mall where he works today.

At Pantaloon, they were brushing up against a lifestyle they hope to be fully part of some day.

Equipped with new cellphones, the three men took to speaking to one other in English, a language they rarely used before. They also absorbed the latest Bollywood fashion trends, buying knock-off designer jeans from street markets rather than paying Pantaloon's prices of $20 to $70 a pair. On weekends after work, they would hang outside dance clubs, anxious to see the clubbers' outfits. "I will spend money like them someday," said Mr. Bhatade.

Such basic sales jobs, unremarkable and often derided in the West, are providing careers, confidence, and a shot at entering the consumer class to millions of impoverished young men and women across India. As their ranks swell, these children of slum dwellers, servants, sweepers and others low on the socioeconomic totem pole are forming a new stratum of workers. They are likely to play an important role in determining the future of the world's second-most-populous nation.

Until recently, much of the new wealth in India went to college-educated computer programmers, consultants and call-center workers. While they have made the country's technology industry a new pillar of global commerce, the total number employed by the software industry is still only about two million -- less than 0.2% of India's 1.1 billion population. At the other end of the spectrum, India still has more than 200 million people who live below the poverty line, mostly farmers.

Between the two are tens of millions of Indians, mostly city dwellers in their 20s and 30s, who are taking their first steps into the salaried class by selling goods and services to the increasingly free-spending upper crust. They represent a kind of swing vote in how far India can spread the fruits of its rapid expansion. Annual economic growth has averaged more than 8.5% for the past four years, but much of the benefits have accrued to the old industrial families and the tech-savvy few.

In the past, less-educated urbanites had few options beyond seeking a government job (often through family connections or bribes). They would go abroad or work for wealthy families who refer to them as "delivery boys," "tea boys" and "peons."

In contrast to China, where wealth spread as rural labor moved from farming to manufacturing, India's growth is being led by a sharp rise in domestic consumption. Stronger spending power is opening up opportunities concentrated in service sectors like retailing, banking and hospitality and telecommunications.

Firm data are hard to come by, but available statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest an explosion in service jobs. The unemployment rate for male high-school graduates in the cities, for example, fell from 8.5% in 1994 to 5.1% in 2005, according to government statistics. Over the next three years, says the Images Group, a research and consulting group in India, the retail sector will create more than 2.5 million new jobs in the country. India's Reliance Industries Ltd. says it will hire close to 500,000 people to staff its new chain of supermarkets. Pantaloon Retail Ltd., India's largest retailer with annual sales of around $1 billion, hires more than 500 people a month.

Rakesh Gundeti (right) helps a young customer as a colleague looks on.

"People are not despondent anymore," says N.S. Sastry, former director of the National Sample Survey Organization, the government office that tracks employment trends. "They see better employment opportunities, better earning capacities and opportunities to improve their skills."

In the brightly lit, white-walled Pantaloon jeans department, the seven-foot-high shelves are filled with denim from international brands like Lee and Pepe. It could be any middling U.S. department store, except for the Hindi pop-music videos playing on huge television screens and the photos of Bollywood stars promoting the brands.

Still, it was a completely foreign environment when the three young men first arrived several years ago. "They are absolutely raw when they come in," says Mansur Khan, the 32-year-old who trained all the department's employees after working for Pantaloon for seven years. He teaches new recruits about confidence, sales, fashion and even hygiene. "They come from an altogether different background."

Mr. Shaikh, a lanky 25-year-old with wiry hair, grew up in the slums nearby. His father died when he was ten, forcing his mother to work different jobs to raise her two sons. After sending them off to school in the morning, she made plastic buckets and cut thread for shirts in small neighborhood factories. She didn't always make enough to feed her children. The only open space for the boys to play was a nearby graveyard. They stumbled over tombstones during games of cricket.

Along with his mother and brother, Mr. Shaikh today shares a 100-square-foot home on a dark alley in a Muslim ghetto. It has a bed, a tiny kitchen and a pile of suitcases for the moves his family makes almost every year.

After high school, Mr. Shaikh had put aside his interest in college to find a job. "Once you start looking for money, you stop thinking about education."

He worked for a while in a small doctor's clinic, handing out prescriptions. The elevator operator's job, he recalls, was the worst. So four years ago, when Phoenix Mills opened -- part of a massive urban development project -- he applied at Pantaloon without even knowing what it was.

Mr. Gundeti's family is from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. But he grew up in Mumbai, where his father worked in a textile factory until his job was eliminated. Almost all of the $10,000 severance he received went toward treating his wife's stomach cancer. The family also sold its slum home to help pay for the treatment. Still, Mrs. Gundeti died last August.

The elder Mr. Gundeti now sweeps floors at a nearby television studio. He had great hopes for Rakesh, whom he named after the first Indian in space, Rakesh Sharma, who was part of a Soviet mission in 1984. But he's turned cautious about what he expects from life. "Every time we have a little hope, something bad happens," the father said as he brushed aside ants on the floor of his small corrugated-steel home.

Rakesh, 22 years old and a big fan of American pro wrestling, had a friend who worked at Pantaloon. So he applied, too.

Mr. Bhatade grew up in a small town about 60 miles north of Mumbai. For the past 15 years, his father has manned a machine that makes brown paper bags. The family lives in a 150-square-foot hut built against the wall of the factory. When Mr. Bhatade was a boy, he planted marigolds and a pomegranate tree outside their door and adopted neighborhood street cats to make the modest abode feel like a home. His parents insisted on a basic education.

"We didn't want them to suffer like we did," says his mother, Vanita Bhatade, 46 years old.

His first job after high school was at a garment factory, where he worked for more than a year. Mr. Bhatade's father told him to look for work in Mumbai, so he moved in with his uncle in a city slum. After a stint peddling credit cards door to door, a friend tipped him off that Pantaloon was hiring. He went for an interview in May of 2004 and got the job.

Immediately, Mr. Bhatade found the clientele to be a big challenge. It was the first time any of the young men had talked to people much richer than themselves. "When I came, I was very shy," Mr. Bhatade recalls. "I would watch them from afar. I couldn't even ask them what they were looking for."

The young men were often yelled at or accused of falling down on the job, as skeptical customers refused to believe their size was out of stock or got irate if the clothes they wanted didn't fit.

They'd shout, "'Who is handling this section?'" Mr. Bhatade recalls. "Who is the boss? Who is the store manager? Who is the department manager?" Mr. Bhatade would offer a simple "I am sorry."

As the longest-serving Pantaloon employee of the three, Mr. Shaikh became the unofficial assistant manager of the department, often staying late into the night to make sure his shelves and racks looked clean. "I never used to fold my clothes at home," he said with a grin.

For jeans advice, he turned to Mr. Bhatade, the department's resident expert on more than 50 types of jeans and denim. He can describe the difference between "monkey wash" and "tiger wash" to his English-speaking customers. (In monkey wash, the front of the pants is faded. In tiger wash, the fading is in horizontal stripes.)

Martin von Krogh/WpN
Rakesh Gundeti, 23, rear, lives with his stepmother, in yellow, and his father. The house gets crowded when his sister and her husband, center, are visiting.

And for light relief to break up the day, they'd pick on Mr. Gundeti, the department comic, making fun of his "funny" southern Indian accent. When he'd return late from a tea break or ask to go home early, his colleagues insisted that he must have had a date. The razzing often sent Mr. Gundeti into a faux fit of anger, making everyone laugh.

When not with customers, the three men would chat constantly about sales targets, cricket, family and movies. The managers discouraged them from bunching together on the floor, so they tried to stay at least five feet from each other as they folded pair after pair of jeans. One recent afternoon, Mr. Bhatade and Mr. Shaikh debated how their section compared to others in the store.

Formal men's wear has the highest sales every month, so employees there have a greater shot at sales-based bonuses. But denim is better than working in the women's wear departments, they agreed, because female customers are much more demanding. "They will try on each color in their size and still they are never happy," said Mr. Shaikh, laughing. "Is your girlfriend like that?" he asked Mr. Bhatade. Blushing, Mr. Bhatade walked away.

Their outside interests and social lives increasingly tilted toward Pantaloon and away from the slums. "I try to teach my friends to end their vulgar language and behavior," said Mr. Gundeti of his neighborhood friends. "They don't change, so I don't spend time with some of them anymore."

Instead, the men watch movies together or with other acquaintances from Pantaloon. Restaurant dinners are still beyond their reach, but on birthdays they pitch in for a cake and take it to the beach to eat. On a company team-building outing, they slid down water slides at a resort near Mumbai. It was the first time Mr. Bhatade had been in a swimming pool. "Most of my free time I spend with my Pantaloon friends," he said.

The store doubled as a place of worship. For a few weeks in September, a room near the denim department housed a statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha that was decorated with streamers and flowers and lit with a purple spotlight. Mr. Gundeti went daily to give offerings and sing religious songs. Mr. Bhatade and 30 other Pantaloon employees later carried the idol to the ocean and left it in the Arabian Sea, the traditional end to the Ganesha festival.

During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, Mr. Shaikh and his supervisor, Mr. Khan, joined the store's other Muslim employees on the roof of the store to break their fast at dusk rather than going to nearby mosques. Each night, they kneeled among piles of boxes full of clothes to pray and passed dates and slices of watermelon as the sun set over the new mall being built next door.

While Pantaloon isn't a quick route out of the slums, the jobs, and the pay, offered something else: the occasional luxury, some financial reassurance and a large dose of self-esteem.

Mr. Shaikh used to wear irregular pieces from the factory where his mother worked -- shirts where the pockets didn't match, for example. His store job allowed him to purchase his first "branded" pair of jeans, on sale for $20. In September, he bought a computer, picking one that can also be used as a television so his mother can watch soap operas. Some regular customers started asking him for his fashion advice. "People are going for the comfort fit, not the boot cut," he said.

Mr. Gundeti has supported his father with his Pantaloon salary and taken advantage of its afternoon shifts to study computer programming in the mornings. He just bought a laptop. It cost more than a desk top but his home has no desk. His family has noticed that he isn't as hot-tempered as he used to be and that he is more "gentlemanly." His Hindi is now peppered with English phrases like "you know," and "I mean." Over the next six years, he hopes to boost his salary significantly -- enough to buy an apartment for his father.

Mr. Bhatade, too, has matured since he started working at the store, according to his parents and sisters. While he used to be shy and withdrawn, he recently planned his sister's wedding -- a huge undertaking in even the poorest Indian homes. He says he is embarrassed by the clothes he used to wear and today tries to teach his friends and his sisters about Mumbai style. Meanwhile, he has become one of the most eligible bachelors in his community, says his father, who has turned down more than five offers of arranged marriage for his son already.

Over the past month, each team member has taken new steps up in the direction of the consumer class. Mr. Gundeti earned a promotion to cashier in Pantaloon's jeans department. Mr. Shaikh left his job to start his own small business, recruiting people to work on construction projects across the Middle East.

Mr. Bhatade was promoted to "team leader," which means he will manage a group similar to his old gang in the denim department, but on a different floor. It is now his turn to teach the job to a new batch of hires from the slums.