Transforming Work: Training Programs and Retail Worker-Identity in Contemporary Kolkata

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Saikat Maitra.

Saikat Maitra is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the Transnational Research Group “Poverty and education in modern India”. He is affiliated with the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. His current research interests are postcolonial spaces, contemporary working-class formations, popular cultures, urbanity and development.

This paper ethnographically explores how Employee Training Programs (ETPs) are deployed by organized retail and service industries in Kolkata, India, as pedagogical sites for fashioning an emergent urban worker-subjectivity amongst underclass urban youth employees. Since the collapse of Kolkata’s industrial bases, entry-level jobs in the rapidly expanding organized retail and service industries offer the best hopes for formal employment for the city’s under-privileged youth populations. Unlike the mechanical/cognitive skills required in industrial factories, service work in spaces such as shopping malls, high-end cafes or multi-cuisine restaurants today increasingly utilize the workers’ generalized social skills. What ETPs strive for is a complete re-making of the worker-subjectivity by inculcating the ideals and practices of global consumerism that the workers are then expected to convey to customers in service spaces. Simultaneously, ETPs seek to erase the visible traces of the workers’ socio-economic vulnerabilities from their bodies, deportments, speech patterns or forms of social interaction.

Drawing on ethnographic research in three organized retail institutions in Kolkata, the paper suggests that the consumer citizenship norms emphasized by ETPs generate unanticipated frictions between the social realities of urban youth labor and aspirations for consumerism. For workers, low wages, diminishing employment securities or exhausting working conditions rub uneasily against the ‘dream-world’ of commodities and images of the capitalist good-life that ETPs teach them to aspire for. This abiding tension offers a productive lens to read the uneven assimilation of underclass youth populations in India within networks of global consumerism. This research project investigates how corporate institutions like ETPs mobilize a disciplined post-industrial labor by modulating subjective desires and fantasies for consumerist life-styles amongst India’s urban poor. Moreover, it asks what kinds of urban subjectivities are being produced at the fault-lines between pervasive global consumerist cultures and persistent post-colonial conditions of social inequalities in contemporary Indian cities.

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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