Problems notwithstanding, women attendants at petrol pumps soldier on

After a day’s work filling petrol to a seemingly never-ending stream of vehicles, D. Mallika, a 20-year veteran at the job, takes home severe headache and red, burning eyes. The 43-year-old women has ignored her doctor’s advice to stay away from petrol fumes. She swallows a painkiller and scoops cold water to her eyes to remain sane. After all, she can ill afford to throw away a job that helps her children go to a good school.

As Ms. Mallika, more and more women are joining the workforce of attendants at fuel pumps in the city. As she, many of them silently suffer disease and debility. The women, mostly school dropouts or from poor families, have to overlook “this and many other problems to save our family.”

For Rejani, who works at a pump near Vellayambalam, her job is the only source of income for her family. After the death of her husband four months ago, the job has become a lifeline to bring up her two children.

Latha Kumari, who starts early from her house at Vattapara to join work by sunrise at Vellayambalam, never complains to her family about her legs gone sore from being on the feet for eight hours on end.

Medical studies have shown that continuous exposure to exhaust fumes can cause headache, asthma and other breathing problems, menstrual irregularities and other long-term ailments.

But the women do not allow these problems to come in the way of their work. S. Pushpa, new to work at a pump near the General Hospital junction, says she is here to stay despite the difficulties.

“I once accidentally filled diesel in a petrol-driven vehicle. I thought I was going to lose my job. But luckily, we were able to rectify the mistake. I am very careful now,” she says.

What bothers the women more is the attitude of customers who look down on them as “low-class workers.”

“Little do they know that we do this job not by choice but because circumstances have forced us to do it. I have respect for my job because it pays for my children’s education. So even if they react that way, I always reserve a thank you for them,” Ms. Mallika says.

The women working at government-owned pumps are unhappy that they are denied medical allowance, bonus or safety shoes. But all agree that customers are more pleased to see them than their male counterparts.

“I think we are able to deal with the customers more smoothly, and we do not like to cheat them. Maybe, that is why people are happy to see us,” Ms. Mallika says.

With a smiling face, she ushers in a car and, wishing the driver good morning, promptly asks, “Petrol or diesel?”