How many people does it take to sell a piece of chocolate cake? That was the question I asked myself as I was ushered from counter to counter at an upmarket patessierie in the centre of New Delhi. Walking into a shop filled with wealthy Indians and expats buying tasty desserts and other delacies, one assistant put my selection into a box while another prepared a receipt on the computer. Then, while a third assistant was called to carry the cake to the collection desk, I was ushered to pay at the cash desk. I handed in my receipt to the assistant (number four) along with the equivalent of 35p and a new receipt was printed for me. Finally assistant number five handed me my cake at the collection desk.
If all this seems very labour intensive, then you will have a good chuckle travelling around India. The metro in Delhi has an employee manning every door of every carriage of the Metro. Restaurants and bars often have so many waiters that they out number customers, even when busy. I’ve laughed when, on more than one occasion, I’ve had one waiter handed me my food while another checks each item off against the order slip. Lurking very close behind the pair, the manager asks if everything is okay. Before I’d even had a chance to have a bite of the meal.
And then of course there are the hotels. Even the lowest quality establishments have an army of porters ready to carry your bags 24-hours a day. I checked into a two star hotel in Delhi and three people competed to carry my suitcase. Two door staff had opened the doors for me. And another three people seemed to have an important role in the process of checking in. Once in my room, I was introduced to two different people who could provide room service. Who knows how many people were in the kitchen. All this for a hotel with just 26 rooms!
I’m now staying in a 3* hotel that has a lift attendant. What a fun job that must be riding up and down from floor to floor each day. You wouldn’t get that sort of service at a similar establishment back home.
All this bureaucracy and complicated procedures can only be blamed on the British. They made the act of keeping detailed records and getting every action double counter signed part of everyday life. Central to the Industrial Revolution was that every worker had a particular role to play in the production process. This theory of not deviating from jobs was then just transferred to the service sector.
But as the West makes many huge numbers of job cuts, more and more people are being forced to multiskill. What’s more, you can certainly go into some businesses in Britain today and struggle to find someone to help you. That rarely happens in India, where there is a (sometimes friendly) face ready to take you along a process – no matter what it is.
So why the difference between India and the West? Given the current economic climate you could hardly say that Britain is more competitive because it less labour intensive. On the other hand, India is on course to be ahead of America in terms of GDP output by 2030. The difference then is that labour in India is so much cheaper than the UK. One room service attendant told me he earned the equivalent of less than £200 a month (long days, with only 4 days off out of 30).
Management have this idea that if they’ve got more people vying for food and drink orders, then there’s more chance of bringing those orders in. Labour is cheap and wages are topped up by guests tipping. And they hope that with a big workforce there is a good chance of improving the customer’s experience. That may be true, but sometimes rather than being able to attend to every need it just creates chaos.
In recent days I’ve also spoken to some people who work outside bars, enticing customers in. They have a deal with bar owners in which they can work at their establishments for next to nothing, but they can sell their own bag of ‘souvenirs’. Places like Goa attract northern Indians who bring bag fulls of stone carvings. They spend the winter selling to tourists, then when the resorts shut down in the summer they return to their villages to make batches of the goods ready for the next year.
But to answer that chocolate cake question – five people served me (seven if you include the two door staff). It took a little longer to get served than at my local Greggs, but it tasted about a million times better so I’m not complaining.