Female shop assistants first made their appearance in Kurumbur bazaar after STD booths [phone booths] opened in this tiny town.
Before their advent, one did not see girls behind shop counters here. After all, this was rural Tamil Nadu, where the only two places women worked were either in the fields or as domestic help.
Then things began to change. The utensil store hired a salesgirl, then the ice-cream shop and soon there was a fair sprinkling of girls in the town’s shops.
When Indian Oil Corporation opened a petrol pump here, it hired girls to dispense fuel to customers. They were paid as much as the boys, were given the day shift while boys worked the nights.
S Kuruppaya, who has been running the petrol pump for two years, says many girls have come and gone during this period.
M Devi is 22, has studied up to class IX and belongs to the village. After working at the STD booth for Rs 500 a month, she moved to the petrol pump. “Here, I get Rs 1,800 a month,” she says.
“Many girls from my street work in a textile showroom in Chennai. They live in a hostel there. My mother did not allow me to go there though I wanted to,” she continues, insisting that her photograph be taken in such a way that it didn’t show her face.
Since her elder brother moved out after marriage, she lives with her mother who works as a farm labourer earning Rs 40 a day.
“I like the work here. It is better than working in the paddy or banana fields where you have to work under the blazing sun and sometimes in pouring rain.”
She does a 10-hour shift, coming in at 8.30 am and leaving at 6.30 pm. Apart from her salary, she gets Rs 10 as expense money everyday. She also gets tea twice a day.
Her co-worker is L Stella, 43. After working at a printing press before, she had left the job to look after her home for a couple of years but a need for money forced her to take up the job at the petrol pump.
At the printing press, she earned Rs 1,500 a month, here she makes Rs 2,000.
Every morning she comes to work after sending her little son to school. In the evening, since he comes home before her, she rushes home at the end of her shift.
“I have never worked in the fields, I am happy this pump employs women. Normally in the village women are employed only in the agriculture sector, and I don’t know that work,” says Stella, whose husband is employed in the army and is usually away.
Working in a petrol pump is not easy. The women come across drivers who are rude, obnoxious, or in a mood to flirt. Often they have to put up with vulgar and sexist remarks. Moreover, the smell of petrol, diesel and oils is overpowering.
They have not heard about the NREGA, the government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to provide employment for 100 days at Rs 80 daily in the rural sector. But even if that were to start here, they say they are not interested. “If we wanted to work in the sun, we would have gone to the fields. That is less hours of work for the same money.”
Field workers make Rs 40 for working from 9 am to 1 pm and Rs 20 for a two-hour shift in the evening. But they do not work everyday. Work is seasonal and irregular.
People earning five or six figure salaries, may find it strange reading about women who make Rs 60 a day. But this is how the other half lives, and we should not forget that.