This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Morgaine Das Varma. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

It’s Heartbreaking How People Who Work In Customer Services Are Treated

More from Morgaine Das Varma

By Morgaine Das Varma:

Let’s start with one of my favourite legends from the Soviet Union. With formal political collapse imminent, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had made great strides towards modernising the toppling superstate through his glasnost and perestroika programme. Part of this ideological game-changing attitude was allowing previously reviled big businesses to set up shop (literally) in the Soviet economy. The first McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990, to extraordinary success. However, an unexpected part of this introduction of American big business to Soviet workers was the sudden introduction of American customer service skills. It was not enough to merely sell the product – one had to sell it with a cheery attitude too. This led to some confusions for the new staff at McDonald’s .

After several days of training about customer service at McDonald’s, a young Soviet teenager asked the McDonald’s trainer a very serious question: ‘Why do we have to be so nice to the customers? After all, WE have the hamburgers, and they don’t!'”

And there it is. The fundamental strangeness of the ‘customer service skills’ that every single worker virtually requires in the service industry. We take them for granted – the forced cheeriness, the ‘how-is-your-day-going’s, the perma-smile that lies on every staff face like a coating of dried ketchup on a table. As workers, we take the expectation of these skills for granted too – we smile at rude customers, we ask how their days are going even when our own day has already brought us to tears in the back room, we remain polite even as a customer spits and screams and swears. We are not paid any extra for the emotional work that we do as workers on top of the tables we wait, the coffee we make, the hair we cut, or whatever it is our job title requires us to do. So, I hear you say, is that a bad thing? Well, let’s give it a thought.

‘Emotional labour’ was a term coined by American sociologist Arlie Hochschild. She studied the work of American air hostesses and the effect that a permanent expectation of acting ‘happy’ all the time had on their professional and personal lives. She discovered that workers were often left ‘burned out’ and depressed due to putting on a cheerful facade for hours at a time; despite their own internal feelings of exhaustion or anger at abusive customers, they were forced by the professional expectations of their jobs to act happy.

In my own work as a barista (coffee brewer), I have also experienced the exhaustion that comes from the endless cheerful chirruping that is expected of me regardless of my own internal feelings, the demands from managers that I ‘smile more’ at the customers even as I make six coffees in a row whilst stress levels balloon around me. And that’s not even counting the fact that the burden of emotional labour that falls disproportionately on women, in both the professional and personal realms of life. Whilst a male colleague may snap and sigh without judgement, a female worker is deemed ‘unprofessional’ or ‘rude’ for the same behaviour.

But regardless of gender, it cannot be denied that the growth of the service industry (last year, India had the second highest growing service sector after China) has led to a massive increase in demands for emotional labour in the workplace – the dreaded ‘customer service skills.’ It is no longer enough to do the job – you must enjoy the job. You must act happy, you must be polite. Remember, the customer is always right.

All well and good if you do enjoy your job – but what about when you don’t? When you’re tired, underpaid, and a customer or manager has just screamed at you? Are these customer service skills still on your side? I say no.

The fundamental truth of customer service skills is that they are there to benefit the company, not the worker. Customer service skills are an insidious part of the machinery of capitalism in a way that is rarely critically examined. They are less about social skills and holding a delightful conversation, and more about the self-control to not scream back in the face of the person who just called you a ‘fucking retard.’ When it comes to abuse of service workers the desperate unfairness of the system becomes even more acute. The service worker who desperately wants to defend themselves shuts their mouth out of fear, not politeness. The self-esteem destroying experiences fall disproportionately on those who are most likely in service jobs (generally very low-wage) – the poor and vulnerable, the young.

If one was treated by an intimate partner or family member in the way that members of the public frequently do, that would constitute abuse. But hey, they are the customer, not your boyfriend or mother, and the customer is always right under capitalism.

Here, the worker has little to no rights because they’re replaceable. It’s been picked up on by Marx himself, if you need further convincing, long before the words ‘customer service’ were even a twinkle in the eyes of a board of executives. Only here, it is less about alienation from a product as it is about alienation from one’s emotions. Once more, capitalism has found a way to commodify something that should never be profitable, and that something is your emotions. Whilst one might find it difficult to put a coal mine worker and a waitress in the same revolutionary context, I still think there is value in trying to find solidarity as members of an oppressed working class.
Customer service skills are there to make sure you remain a good little worker in the industry, to make sure you keep raking in the profits for the company even if it comes at the expense of your dignity, your emotional well-being.

Are customer service skills fundamentally always a bad thing? Well, nobody wants to be served by a surly waiter, but I would argue that when we focus too much on whether the service worker smiles enough, and not whether they are being paid enough or treated respectfully, we focus on the wrong things. Capitalism might be screwing all of us, but it screws some of us more than others, and often in a more visible way. The service worker who cries in the back room after attending an abusive customer, has to walk back out, smiling again as they make you a hamburger. It is a tiny reference but a relevant example of how profit often trumps human emotion.

So what is to be done? Well, as much as I love to build verbal barricades and wax Marx lyrically, I still have to go back to my minimum wage service job tomorrow, and provide service with a smile. But I’ll still think fondly of that Soviet McDonald’s worker. And to everyone who’s utilising the skills of a service worker, the least you can do is be polite.

Featured image source: Google
Banner image source: Ramesh Pathania/Mint via Getty Images

You must be to comment.

More from Morgaine Das Varma

Similar Posts

By Payal Tatwal

By Anju Kanwar

By Dipali Banka

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below