Life has thrown bartenders, other workers in non-standard bars a curveball

For 22 years, life for Ajikumar meant walking around in circles and straight lines inside a dimly lit hall with light music playing in the background, which was occasionally disrupted by the clanking of filled glasses, the breaking of empty bottles, and the intensity of customers’ verbal duels. With no retirement age specified for bartenders, he intended to keep moving from table to table to help strangers drown their sorrows or swim in celebration, as long as he ‘could walk.’

But on March 31, his walk came to a grinding halt while he was still in the prime of his life, as the State government decided not to renew the licences of non-standard bars. It was an unexpected jolt for his family of four as this was their only source of income.

Crisis

“The closure came without any warning, and so none of us knew how to tide over this crisis. If the government had told us at least a few months before, we would have tried finding an alternative for the time being, or even saved up a few thousands for the lean months. Next month, I have to remit the school fee for my two children,” says Ajikumar, who works in a bar at Ulloor in the city.

Bartenders used to earn an average of Rs.10,000 as salary plus a decent amount of tips. A common refrain among the bar workers that The Hindu talked to was that long years of doing this job had made them ‘unfit’ or even ‘unable’ to do any other work.

Breadwinners

“Look, most of us came into this as 20-year-olds to support our family. The work is such that even if we want to do something else, we might find it hard to fit in as there really is no other work of this nature. But don’t think that we are scared of physical exertion, as a busy day at the bar is almost as good as ploughing the field. Also, people perceive us as uneducated. But the fact is that most of us are even proficient in English. How else will be read out the brand names?” says Shobhanakumar, a bartender.

Till this unexpected closure, the bar workers were all unorganised and did not have a union of their own.

Now, they have formed an action council with the support of the Left parties and have organised protests in front of the Secretariat and the godowns of the Beverages Corporation (Bevco).

‘Suicides’

“Four bar workers have committed suicide across the State in the past one month. But the government is acting as if it has not seen our suffering. If it is so sincere on its stand against liquor, why not close down the Bevco outlets? It is the government’s responsibility to give us an alternative now that it has put an end to our livelihood. But the attempt has been to brand us as mouthpieces of the rich bar owners,” says K.P. Prathapan, a member of the action council.

It is a fallacy that only bartenders lost their livelihood owing to the closure of the bars, says Girish, manager of a two-star hotel in the city. Hundreds of people employed for allied work in a bar, including those into cleaning of dishes and tables, have been rendered jobless. These include women, he says.

Priamvada, a widow, was employed in a bar near Thampanoor for almost seven years. She used to earn at least Rs.50 a day in tips, besides getting a monthly salary of Rs.6,000.

“I am the only breadwinner and have to shoulder the responsibility of two daughters and mother-in-law. Schools are going to open; I am struggling to find means to pay their fees and other expenses,” she says.

Dire straits

She says another 10 women worked in the same bar and their situation was similar to hers.

Almost all bars run a restaurant, and some of the workers there were also displaced. Similarly, people running petty shops and wayside eateries near the bars and small hoteliers too affected. Security staff too have lost their jobs.

The odd one out, though, on the list of the affected is Satheesh, an artist who sits on the road near a bar at PMG.

“My clients were mostly the people leaving the bar, who were fascinated by the sketches displayed here and wanted similar portraits for themselves. There has been no business in the past one month,” says Satheesh.

Meanwhile, at the few ‘standard’ bars that got their licence renewed, the load on the bartenders has more than doubled.

Much of the clientele from the closed bars has been flocking to these expensive bars for the daily fix.