Saudi lingerie shops baulk at hiring women

Shops must replace male clerks with women by Jan 2012 but drag feet over costs, hiring
Saudi lingerie shops baulk at hiring women
The Saudi government has threatened in July to shut any lingerie shops still employing male clerks
By Reuters
Sun 31 Jul 2011 04:20 PM

Saudi
lingerie stores are dragging their feet on an official deadline to avoid
embarrassing female shoppers by replacing their male sales clerks with women,
saying the change will create staff problems, lose them customers and cost them
money.

Women
in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most conservative societies, still have to
buy their intimate clothing from male clerks, despite several petitions and two
government decrees ordering businesses to hire women.

In
an effort to enforce the regulations, the Labour Ministry threatened on July 11
to close any lingerie shops that failed to replace all male staff within six
months.

"We
read about the order in newspapers but we did not receive any instructions
[from management]... This plan can work but not at the speed they are
expecting. The women have to be trained from scratch," said Tarek, a store
manager at a lingerie shop in Jeddah.

In
Saudi Arabia's conservative society, where religious police patrol the streets
to enforce segregation of the sexes, women are not allowed to work in public
places where they have contact with men, such as sale clerks or cashiers.

Shops
that hire females must bear the cost of training them, cover their display
windows to block the view into the stores and hire a male security guard, for
at least SR3,500 ($930) a month, during work hours to keep men from entering.

One
of Saudi Arabia's leading lingerie brands, Nayomi, made the switch after the
first government decree was issued in 2004, staffing their 45 stores with
female clerks only to revert to male employees a year later.

"In
2004, we implemented the order and hired women ... we faced a lot of problems,"
said a manager at Nayomi, who asked not to be identified. "The experience
lasted about a year and we lost a lot of money, over 10 million riyals."

Poor
sales owing to a lack of male customers, the high cost of ensuring security,
the inability to lure customers with a window display and the reluctance of
some women employees to work late shifts in a country where shops stay open
until 11pm led to the losses.

The
Nayomi manager estimated that a switch to women only staff now would cost over SR2m.
Pressure to hire women is driven by growing unemployment among the 18 million
Saudis. Unemployment reached 10 percent in 2010 but for women the rate is
estimated around 28 percent.

While
many lingerie shops are not taking the threat too seriously, a small number
have begun preparations.

The
Fawaz Abdulaziz Al Hokair Group, which has 400 male employees in its three
lingerie brands throughout the kingdom, has started training 200 females to
take over their stores soon.

"We
have joined with a private company to train the women. There are no trained
women here because they did not work in that field before," said Ahmad
Sheikh El Shabab, brand manager of La Senza, one of Al Hokair's lingerie brands
in Saudi Arabia.

"The
decision is great because worldwide the lingerie shops are managed by women,
and that is how it should be especially in this conservative country. Many
women get embarrassed buying these things from men," he said.

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