From sidelined to significant: how retail workers became key workers in our communities

Stewart Forrest says it should not have taken a crisis to recognise the crucial role of retail workers

When the Coronavirus hit our shores, the shopping public panicked in the aisles of our supermarkets. Suddenly, the world understood the essential role retail workers have in keeping our communities fed, healthy and safe. Finally, Usdaw’s consistent calls for shopworkers to be respected and valued is being heard, but we cannot let this fade when we get past this national crisis. This must lead to lasting fundamental and radical changes to the way society views our lowest paid workers.

#SolidarityWithShopworkers is not just a phrase for a crisis for the issues our members face are not new, but amplified in this emergency situation: low pay and insecure work; violence, threats and abuse at work, along with wider health and safety issues, and retail commercial crisis are at the core of Usdaw campaigns and will continue long into the future.

The Coronavirus crisis has made politicians, the media and public understand how reliant our society is on lower-paid and often undervalued workers. The NHS, social care, our food and pharmaceutical supply chains and essential public services are all propped up by workers on or near minimum wage rates that don’t meet the cost of living. Many are struggling with insecure employment, on zero-hours or short-hours contracts that do not guarantee their weekly wage.

Usdaw’s ongoing ‘Time for Better Pay’ campaign calls for these injustices to be addressed. At least £10 per hour now, ending rip-off youth rates, fundamentally reforming the broken Universal Credit system, proper contracts that reflect average hours and banning appalling zero-hours contracts are the least that can be done to reward our essential workers who are making heroic efforts through the Coronavirus emergency.

The Government initially moved swiftly to announce schemes to help businesses and workers, but have been slow on bringing forward the details. Businesses are unclear about the support available and how they are able to access it. And when businesses are uncertain, the load is often carried by the workers. Many furloughed workers are still not clear what their income will be in the coming weeks and months. That uncertainty is an extra burden for those already struggling to make ends meet and can lead them into unsecured and difficult to repay debt. Universal Credit doesn’t provide the crucial support needed, failing in its function as a safety net for those who need it.

Usdaw was already running a high-profile campaign to tackle the crisis on our high streets. The ‘Save our Shops’ campaign highlighted the desperate state of many town centres, how shop closures rip the heart out of our communities and the devastating impact job losses and company restructures have on staff. We not only identified the issues, but put forward solutions in a comprehensive industrial strategy for retail that commands support across the sector including retail analysts and experts.

If any other industry were in such peril there would rightly be a public outcry, but the Government appears deaf to our protests. Its laissez faire attitude to Britain’s largest employment sector means that workers and our communities are left to the whim of the market.

It was bad then and now the retail crisis is far, far more acute. Many of our members in non-essential retail are rightly deeply concerned about whether their companies can survive the Coronavirus emergency and if they’ll keep their jobs. The Government must step in and support these businesses. There needs to be a rebalancing of taxation to end the overwhelming advantage online retailers enjoy. Now more than ever, the Government must bite the bullet and force the off-shore online retailers to pay their fair share of tax in this country.

We have very strong concerns about the safety of staff during the Coronavirus emergency. Too many employers tried to carry on regardless, particularly those anti-union businesses who do not listen to staff and deny them a collective voice. This crisis has absolutely demonstrated the vital role of union health and safety reps, risk assessing workplaces and securing appropriate safety measures. Surely, the time has come for legislation to stop employers from locking out unions and forcing staff to continue to work in unsafe conditions.

We make no excuses for attacks on shopworkers, there are no circumstances where abuse should be a part of the job, but when the Government and employers undervalue retail staff it is inevitable that some of the shopping public show a total lack of respect. The Government continues to refuse to legislate against shopworker assault, despite the appalling scenes of abuse during panic buying and the lockdown restrictions in supermarkets. Perhaps, no surprise from a right-wing Conservative administration, but this yet again shows we need a change of government to get the necessary protections for frontline staff.

In all my years as a union rep and official I have never known a situation that has had such a dramatic impact on Usdaw members in every single workplace across the country. I am always proud of Usdaw reps and members, but I have never been as proud as now. Their response in supporting very worried members through extremely difficult circumstances has been nothing short of incredible.

This crisis is bringing about fundamental changes to the way we live, it’s changing our values and shining a light on the radical changes our society needs. We cannot go back to the bad old ways of undervaluing workers #SolidarityWithShopworkers

Stewart Forrest is Usdaw’s Scottish Divisional Officer