Millennium Post

Retail therapy won’t work for them

Thanksgiving is a typically American tradition. Ostensibly, the day is celebrated as a day of feasting. As the lore goes, the original inhabitants of the continent-sized country, who are now called American Indians, had broken bread with some of the early settlers who were in dire straits. In turn, the settlers later held a feast for the American Indians to say a ‘thank you.’

Thanksgiving is always on a weekend beginning on the fourth Thursday of November. Friday following the Thursday is known for the shopping binge that the Americans go into as the shopping outlets offer massive discounts. Called the Black Friday, the people in many places of the country, actually queue up the evening before to catch an early bargain next morning.

This Black Friday, millions of shoppers in America did not visit the Walmart shop close by. The workers who man those shops struck work. This was a labour movement in the making. Building up over the middle of November, with a ‘walk-out’ of thousands of workers from Walmart shops in California, Texas, Seattle in Washington state, the movement culminated on the Black Friday.

The demands of these workers were not very complicated. They wanted a job that paid them more than the average poverty-line earning of an American family of four (which Walmart did not); as a report in the Yes! Magazine of the USA quoting Huffington Post stated that low-level Walmart employee averages $8 an hour and cannot expect a raise until after six years of committed employment.

After six years s/he would get a raise that would bring the pay to $10.60 an hour or $22,048 a year still below the national poverty line. These abysmally low wages make many of the Walmart employees turn to government assistance to help them provide for their families.

Over the last week, Walmart was much in news in this country as well. The issue was the entry of foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail like Walmart; and the opposition led by the BJP on one end of the spectrum, and the Left parties on the other end was up in arms.

While the issue was highlighted by the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal by walking-out of the UPA II government of the Congress Party, and their later desire to move a motion of ‘no-confidence,’ the opposition position really got traction when both the BJP and Left demanded voting on a resolution related to the issue.   

Of course, the government allowed that discussion on the floor of Parliament only after ensuring that the Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – the two viciously competing parties – would come together to support it. This unnatural composition itself typifies the spurious nature of the issue at hand.

What are the issues that are being debated by the opposition and the ruling combines? While the Manmohan Singh government has imparted a belief to the people that this decision of theirs would open the floodgates for FDI to flow in and raise the Indian economy out of its present pre-comatose condition, the BJP is pointing out that the entry of the huge multi-brand retail chains with global presence would swamp the small, neighbourhood stores and thus deny their traditional constituency a way of livelihood.

The Left acceded to that BJP position and had more. They talked of the job losses of millions of unorganised labour that are attached to these small businesses. But none of them touched upon the most important economic issue that lies in the nub of the current economic slowdown. Let’s take an example for comparision. China, in the last quarter between October till date has actually seen a rise, albeit mild, in its core sector – manufacturing. The BBC, grudgingly welcomed, that Purchasing Manager’s Index of the country has actually risen higher for the first time over the last 13-month period according to both the HSBC and the Chinese government.

Admittedly, the largest composite component of the Indian gross domestic product is the services sector (56.4 per cent estimated for 2011), which requires the usage of English as a language of commerce, but very little vocational skills? Is this a correct model to work on?

Admittedly, a considerable section of the Indian youth bulge comes from the English language education of the middle class whose clamour for jobs needed to be taken into account. But the pidgin English they learn equip them regrettably to only jobs that Arun Jaitley, the BJP leader described in Parliament as ‘sales boys and sales girls.’ Hence, the Walmart.

Is this the desired future for their own and national model of growth – economic, social and cultural? Will these McCaulay’s stepchildren be consigned to a future of mediocrity?

Pinaki Bhattacharya is a senior journalist
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