England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

View from the shopfloor: A day in the life of a retail worker

By a retail worker in Yorkshire

At ten to five my alarm wakes me, and against every instinct in my body, I get up for work.

People are often under the impression that I am a morning person (I am not) or that I find this routine preferable to a bog standard 9-5 (I don’t) or that I have simply grown used to it over the years (I have not).

So, why would you embark on these early morning starts? Well, you don’t get paid ‘time and a half’ for it if that’s what you’re wondering. Time and a half doesn’t exist in this workplace anymore, and double time is a myth most can scarcely believe was real. No worker here has a contract over twenty hours, and once the overtime sheet is posted, they’ll scramble for it like chickens for feed, desperate to make next month’s payday ‘the good one’.

At the front door I am immediately hit with the first dilemma of the day – that being getting into the building itself. There is no staff entrance, an oversight you could place on the architects but which I am much more inclined to place on the company for deciding to set up shop here. There is one set of keys, which the manager of the day holds, only depending on the manager they might not be at the front door to let the morning staff in. We start getting paid when we clock in, so if we are left waiting past our start time (and we so often are) that is directly eating into wages. This is a recurring problem, and whilst some years have seen management become more punctual, that good practice will and does, slip. Your clock-in time is recorded, and if you clock in past your assigned time repeatedly, you are given the threat of disciplinary action,, which is added to your permanent record with the company. But wages and your record with the employer aren’t the only issues this causes, on multiple occasions employees have been accosted and even assaulted, whilst standing at these very doors in the early hours of the morning, waiting to be let in. The company employs a high percentage of women, and young women for the weekend shifts, the latest incident happened just a few months ago – a manager (who had been with the company years) claimed ignorance and that this was the first time they were hearing of it occurring. I cannot tell which is the worse option, that they were lying, or telling the truth.

Once actually in the building and clocked in, you check your department to see if it has had any delivery, if not, you’re moved over to another department, the hand over between workers is virtually non-existent, communication is at a minimum, managers can micromanage one particular department or another and even leave noted instructions, but many departments fall through the cracks and workers are expected to ‘pick up the slack’ themselves, taking up the role of management, of course, without the additional pay. These kind of issues obviously get moaned about quite a bit, especially with the morning team as there’s few people on the shop floor and so we are more freely able to air grievances with the way things are run, but this is as far as those conversations go, few are members of the union, and those that are would be hard pressed to explain why, or what the benefits are. The most basic functionality of a private sector union in this style of workplace would be to act as (or bring in) a third party to conduct health and safety checks, but these checks (when they happen) are conducted by paid employees of the company, who are more interested in bragging about the latest company green policy (that no one sees evidence of), or various other items of company propaganda. We must fight to build a union that sides with the workers, not cosy up to management, and takes our concerns and grievances seriously.

Safety training has only recently been implemented company-wide, as grocery and retail stores want to minimise training not merely to avoid expenditure of time and resources, but also the more training an employee in this low level position requires, the more they might start to question the job as ‘unskilled labour’, a myth particularly pervasive in this sector as a way of excusing low wages, unsociable contract hours and much more.

As you make your way through your shift, your relative tiredness and hunger are not factored into when your lunch break will be, but rather when is most convenient for the company, the ever prevalent excuse for this one-sidedness being that the store is understaffed. This is true, the store is always understaffed, but there is always room in the budget for six or seven managers who are on over £25,000 a year with paid breaks, expenses, etc, but not for the actual shop floor workers, who are on sometimes as little as £12,000 a year.

When you work retail, everyone is your boss, and any customer that walks through that front door could be the one that loses you your job, as the management will always, and I mean always, put the reputation of the company before the needs and livelihood of the employee.

And as you work a long shift at unreasonable hours for a wage mere pence above the legal minimum, you know that there is another worker, likely a woman in Bangladesh, that has it so, oh so much worse than you. But you won’t know about her until the building that she works at collapses and crushes her due to structural violations and your company’s name is recorded by the journalists on the products spilling out of the rubble.

But despite the differences in working conditions between myself and the worker in Bangladesh, we are both being exploited in our workplace. We can only end this repression by organising in militant unions, that take on the capitalist class and wrest back the wealth that they have been exploiting from us for far too long.

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