Shop workers go unnoticed by much of society. They toil away mostly unseen in the background so that the rest of us can get our groceries, ready meals, beers or clothing in well-stocked, pristine-looking stores. They work for some of the big, long-established companies in the UK – Sainsbury’s, Asda, Next, M&S, John Lewis, WH Smith, Tesco, Co-op and Boots to name but a few – as well as in small, local, open-all-hours corner shops.
But shop workers are among the least respected, most exploited and most underpaid of all workforces. Moreover, their needs, wellbeing and even safety are continually overlooked by those in power, either at company or government level.
This article aims to outline the harsh reality of shop workers’ lives, some of the difficulties they face and the areas in which they need more protection and support. As I will cover, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the safety issues affecting those in public-facing roles.
Hard graft and camaraderie
I spent around 10 years in retail, working in a busy supermarket selling everything from food to alcohol and cosmetics to underwear. The days were often brutally long and unbearably busy, and after a late shift I regularly got home and just fell into bed only to get up the next day to do it all over again. Christmas, New Year and Easter were especially tough and we regularly joked about bringing our beds into the store because it often felt as if we hadn’t been home to rest at all.
There were times of great camaraderie among staff, who in my experience were reliable, hardworking and with no airs and graces preventing them from getting stuck into often laborious, grimy tasks (stacking up stock, crushing cardboard boxes, cleaning up dropped fish pie or sorting out yesterday’s backstage food waste, anyone?). There was a community spirit in the store, with people always willing to lend you a hand to finish a job and a predisposition to seeing the funny side of life in order to get through the unforgiving shifts we worked. On the downside, the decline of high street shopping habits eventually led to times of great sadness when failing stores were closed down and teams broken up.
Unsociable hours, low pay
The life of a shop worker is full-on and far from glamorous. Contrary to popular belief, it is not just a matter of sitting on a checkout (indeed, you can’t always ‘sit down’). These days you are expected to multi-task and, in the case of supermarkets, you may be allocated to the warehouse (stockroom, fridges or freezers), an in-store café, or various shop-floor activities, such as stock refilling, checking use-by food dates, reducing items, price checking, auditing, till running, managing the self-service checkouts, the customer service desk and even cleaning. When you’ve been backstage in any store and done an average day’s work, you soon realise why most uniforms are black!
Supermarket staff on the early shift make their way in to work at an ungodly time of the morning, where they spend the next few hours unloading early morning deliveries in an unheated/non-air-conditioned warehouse, wheeling around stock trolleys, lifting heavy pallets and filling up the shelves, fridges and freezers. Indeed, shop staff have often completed half of an average eight-hour day before most people have even started work. And when those with a nine-to-five working life are putting their feet up in front of the TV, shop workers on the late shift are still pushing around heavy stacks of produce, re-stocking shelves and fridges, and clearing up the store, often on their hands and knees, till way after closing time – 9, 10, 11pm, sometimes even later.
Yet the pay received by shop workers does not reflect the regularly unsociable hours or the heavy, sometimes even hazardous, work they carry out every day. According to the most recent members’ survey conducted in 2018 by the Union of shop, distributive and allied workers (Usdaw), the majority of retail sector workers were paid an average hourly rate of between £7.83 and £8.50 (the National Living Wage from April 2018 to March 2019 was £7.83 per hour for those aged 25 and over). The report documented that, over the preceding five years, 92 per cent of retail workers “had seen no improvement in their financial situation”, with 63 per cent “feeling worse off”.
Considering the precarious state of high-street retail and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is hard to imagine that the pay has vastly increased since these survey results were published. The National Living Wage from April 2021, now extended to those of 23 years and over, stands at £8.91 per hour. Rising prices, in addition to short-hours contracts (where guaranteed hours fall below 16 hours per week), mean that shop and associated workers regularly struggle to make ends meet, often leading to poor physical and mental health.
Usdaw launched its ‘Time for Better Pay’ campaign in September 2018 to lobby employers and the government to alleviate in-work poverty for shop and allied workers. The campaign calls for, among other things, “a minimum wage rate of £10 per hour for all workers [and] a minimum contract of 16 hours per week for everyone who wants it”. Usdaw has also drawn attention to the need for the government to overhaul the Universal Credit system, which has negatively affected those forced to make up for low pay by in-work benefits.
Verbal and physical abuse from the public
Workplace abuse is a major issue facing shop workers today. It is a sad fact that one of the main memories I have from my time in retail is the disparaging way in which my colleagues and I were treated by much of the public. On a bad day, I felt like a second-class citizen, the lowest of the low.
The general attitude is that customer assistants don’t really merit speaking to unless it’s to ask where something is, or to make a complaint that an item is out of stock or that there’s a lengthy queue at the till. And most people don’t even say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when they’re in a hurry. All the same, the shop assistant is expected to drop everything to help the customer, to smile politely and to accommodate every grumble and demand, because the customer is always right and, without customers, retail staff wouldn’t have a job anyway.
I found that there is rarely a ‘politeness quid pro quo’ between customers and shop workers. Of course, there were the exceptions and some regular customers were kind and respectful. But the majority were offish, often patronising and sometimes downright rude. You had to quickly learn to take it in your stride or you wouldn’t last a week.
The sarcasm and, at times, the utter contempt aimed at us from some members of the public made it clear that they thought us unworthy of their respect, helped by the fact that – such is the retail culture of the UK – they knew we were unable to answer back without reprimand from our managers. At times the comments my colleagues and I were subjected to were tantamount to verbal abuse. There is a line that is crossed either because the sarcastic tone becomes angry shouting, or when general discontent about the store or the queue becomes personal to the assistant’s competence or demeanour (we were often called “slow” and/or “stupid”). Such verbal attacks take their toll mentally, particularly because you will experience them not just once but sometimes several times a day.
I was lucky in that the nearest I experienced to physical abuse was being ambushed when carrying out Christmas Eve food reductions (people would wait outside our backstage door and, when we came out, they would literally snatch things off our trolleys and out of our hands before we could put them on the shelves); and, on one occasion, a woman throwing her loaf of bread at me when I (politely) told her that there was a queue she should have joined for my baskets-only till. But physical threats and violence against shop workers are an unfortunate hazard of the job, the main triggers being dealing with shoplifters and age-restricted sales (alcohol, cigarettes, knives).
Usdaw has been documenting incidents of violence and abuse since 2007 through in-person interviews of members by union representatives and, over the past year, online surveys. Worryingly, even prior to the pandemic, the period from 2017–2019 saw a huge rise in cases of verbal abuse directed at staff, from just over half of those surveyed to around two thirds, while there was also a significant rise in physical attacks on workers.
Safety during the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges for public-facing shop staff. In the early days, panic buying caused major problems for shop workers when they had to limit customer purchases of items in short supply; later in the year, public confusion and frustration over new rules, such as social distancing, restricted numbers inside stores and mask-wearing, often caused customers’ tempers to boil over.
An Usdaw report on the impact of coronavirus on the retail workforce states that, out of 4,928 shop workers surveyed at the start of the pandemic, between March and April 2020, 3,069 recounted being abused (62 per cent), 1,426 threatened (29 per cent) and 926 (19 per cent) physically assaulted.
The report quotes a retail worker from the south west: “Many customers don’t want to follow the safety precautions (social distancing, being served through a hatch in the wall, etc) leading to some form of abuse/violence every single shift. The precautions have also made the standard practices more difficult, such as asking for ID on age-related products, due to customers already being agitated before the interaction has even started.”
This trend has continued during the pandemic, as recorded in a more detailed Usdaw survey, carried out between August and December 2020, in which almost “9 out of 10 workers said that they had been verbally abused in the last 12 months, [while] 60 per cent reported threats of verbal violence”, with the weekly incident rate rising compared to previous years. Furthermore, 9 per cent said they had been physically attacked in 2020, up from 5 per cent in 2019.
These figures were corroborated by the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) 2021 crime survey report covering the period from 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020, which documents “the incidence of violent and abusive attacks on [retail] employees at 455 a day”.
In September 2020, the BBC posted a video report showing two shocking incidents of violent customer behaviour from in-store CCTV footage, including a woman ransacking the wine aisle of a Co-op store in Surrey after being told to follow the one-way system. The other footage shows a customer hitting the checkout plastic screens, pulling things off shelves and threatening staff. In the video, retail worker Michelle Whitehead recounts how abuse against shop staff has worsened over the pandemic:
“It’s just shocking to see how people treat us. We’re only there doing our job. (… ) I think they [the public] must look down on shop workers as second class people.”
Another more recent BBC news report features a video interview with a Co-op manager who, along with a customer assistant, were threatened with a knife during a store robbery.
Last year the Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences) Bill was promoted by Labour MP Alex Norris and received support from 23 CEOs of major retailers. The proposed new law would afford shop employees the same legal protection as front-line emergency workers, with a specific offence of assault against a retail worker.
In February this year the BRC wrote an open letter to the prime minister, signed by more than 65 leading retail executives, requesting that the government bring in the new law, while Usdaw’s ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign has long promoted the need for greater legal protection for shop workers and harsher penalties for perpetrators. A change to the law is long overdue, as shop workers have always been subjected to abuse, with the pandemic simply scaling up a problem that was already there. No one should have to go into work and face potential abuse and violence on a daily basis for just doing their job. Furthermore, as the BRC crime survey report states, the creation of a standalone offence “would strengthen the police response; enable a better understanding of the scale of the problem through the collection of data against this specific offence; and would boost prosecutions from a shocking six in 100.”
In February 2021, the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act was passed into law by the Scottish parliament, but at Westminster Norris’s bill has been stalled at its second reading since January, with no further date being set. Furthermore, on 5 July, Westminster MPs voted down an amendment to the government’s flagship police, crime, sentencing and courts (PCSC) bill, which would have enacted similar protections for retail workers against abuse, threats and violence.
Retail workers and their representative bodies feel greatly let down. In a statement, Usdaw has expressed its disappointment and called on the government to keep its promise of bringing forward a comparable amendment to the PCSC bill in the House of Lords. Time will tell.
Lack of support
Clearly, one of the main triggers for the increasing levels of abuse has been retail workers being expected to enforce rules on social distancing and mask-wearing with no clear guidance or support from the government or their own managers. In fact, Usdaw’s August to December 2020 survey found that, in addition to more security staff and greater police involvement, what workers most wanted was more management support to deal with the enforcement of Covid-19 rules. This is reflected in my own poor experience of some retail managers, whose ‘people skills’ often left a lot to be desired and who, we felt, were encouraged by the head office to rate customer sales and satisfaction over staff concerns.
Another, often overlooked, aspect of shop workers’ safety has been their risk of exposure to Covid-19 at work. Throughout the pandemic, unless they were deemed especially vulnerable, staff in essential retail have been expected to keep working, often in difficult conditions, in order to ‘feed the nation’. In the beginning, the wearing of face masks was not mandatory and many risked potentially contracting coronavirus every day at work either from customers or each other.
Now, and despite the rise of the Delta variant, the government’s decision to ditch the legal requirement for face masks from 19 July in shops and on public transport will put those in public-facing roles at continued and increased risk of contracting Covid-19. Merely recommending that people wear masks in busy public places and on buses and trains (which many in low-paid jobs rely on to get to and from work) demonstrates just how out of touch Boris Johnson and his ministers really are with the daily realities for most working people. The traditional Conservative mantra of personal responsibility in the context of mask-wearing and social distancing will not protect shop workers, or anyone in a public-facing role, who do not have a choice about who they come into contact with, how or for how long.
Many trades unions are calling on the government to keep face masks and social distancing mandatory in shops and on public transport. As reported by the BBC, Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis has said:
“Retail staff are working with the public every day and are deeply worried about catching Covid-19. This is not the right time to water down safety in stores and the government should not be removing the requirements of face coverings and distancing in busy public areas like shops.”
Likewise, Unison assistant general secretary Jon Richards has stated: “Now isn’t the time to throw caution to the wind, especially with infections on the rise. The economy is important, but so is public confidence. People want clarity from the government as restrictions are eased. They don’t need a confusing free-for-all, with ministers absolving themselves of any responsibility for public health.”
Further problems can be envisaged for shop staff if different companies adopt their own polices on mask-wearing in stores. If some shops require face coverings for customers but others don’t, then the public will be confused and the onus will again fall on shop workers to enforce the rules in their own stores, in all likelihood against strong public opposition (“Who are you to tell me I have to wear a face mask in here when I don’t have to there?”). With abuse of shop staff at an all-time high and the hard work they have put in over the past year to keep stores safely open and well-stocked, this is the last situation that retail workers need or deserve.
If the pandemic has taught us anything at all, it ought to be that we need to think more carefully about how we treat those around us, particularly those who are vulnerable or overlooked by society. Retail workers fall into this category and deserve to be more respected by the public, more greatly valued by their employers through higher pay and fairer contracts, and afforded more legal protection against violence and abuse – an option that remains in the hands of this government.
If you feel strongly that wearing face masks should remain mandatory for the public in shops and supermarkets, then there is a petition you can sign here. The petition was started by Bristolian Martyn Cordey and at the time of writing has gained over 182,500 signatures. There is also a petition for keeping masks obligatory on public transport, which needs more support. Please sign and share both.