England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Retail workers at risk

A recent article on the British Medical Journal website mentions that “those in customer-facing roles (are) five times as likely to test positive as their colleagues… What’s more, among those testing positive, three out of four had no symptoms, suggesting these key workers could be an important reservoir of infection, say the researchers.”

A recent survey by retail union USDAW found that 29% of respondents reported that they have had to take sick leave or self-isolate as a result of Covid.

This has contributed to widespread anxiety and increased stress for retail workers. Reports are common of retailers not paying workers in self-isolation, or even sacking some, as well as cutting corners on safety measures such as PPE. Overcrowding is also a common problem in shops, with understaffed stores unable to properly enforce their own guidelines.
The ones who suffer from these practices are ordinary working class people, of whom many are our colleagues and customers. There needs to be a call from the unions to demand proper PPE in all stores and workplaces, and a proper support system for all workers dealing with stress and anxiety.

Many retail workers, spending hours under the same roof, day in, day out, are starting each shift wondering ‘is this the day I fall ill?’ In my workplace we have regular updates about Coronavirus – this latest variant has meant strengthened rules in regards to regular hand washing, changing of gloves and keeping a social distance between colleagues. We also have posters up on our entrance and throughout the store telling people that masks are mandatory and that if they haven’t brought one, we can provide a free mask at our entrance.

However, there have still been outbreaks in many retail settings. For example at Tesco in the Old Trafford area of Manchester, 50 members of staff caught Covid-19, and one colleague sadly died. Many retail workers are asking how much longer they will have to face these risks.

We need decent mental health services and support for retail workers during this crisis, but we must also address the real reasons for this anxiety and stress by ensuring the safety of retail workers, allowing them to self-isolate without fear of repercussions.

Retail workers will need to get organised to defend their safety in the workplace. This means

  • Mass, immediate rollout of the vaccine to all frontline workers
  • Full pay for any workers forced to self-isolate and those unable to work due to care or childcare
  • Workers’ control over health and safety measures in the workplace including levels of staff and distancing measures
  • Pay raises now to a real living wage and a fighting union that will guarantee continuous wage raises. The introduction of £10 an hour at Morrisons is a start, but we need to push further and fight across the whole sector for a real living wage.


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