Essential, not ‘unskilled’: Retail workers must organise against profit-hungry bosses

During the Covid-19 crisis, essential workers are on the frontline in many different sectors. NHS staff, transport workers, retail staff and many more are all playing a vital role in keeping society running, yet are being treated with utter contempt by the Tories and capitalist governments the world over.

By Peter McGregor

During the Covid-19 crisis, essential workers are on the frontline in many different sectors. NHS staff, transport workers, retail staff and many more are all playing a vital role in keeping society running, yet are being treated with utter contempt by the Tories and capitalist governments the world over.

Retail workers – who just a few months ago were being branded ‘unskilled’ by the Tories – are now seen for what they are: essential. Not only during this crisis, but also during more ‘typical’ times, without retail workers, the public would not have access to basic necessities. Proving vital to everyday life, what have these workers been met with? Low wages, horrible conditions, long and unsociable hours, abuse from both customers and management, and an expectation to be smiley, receptive and all-knowing.

Retailers’ profits rise as workers’ conditions fall

During this crisis, retailers have seen a massive jump in profits, with Tesco’s March sales jumping 5.5%. Sainsbury’s saw a 12% jump in sales in the last financial quarter. In the week before the lockdown began in the UK, retailers saw as much as a 48% rise in sales. With bosses profiting off the crisis, one might expect workers to get some dividends but, for the system of capitalism, that isn’t how it works. The average wage for a retail worker in the UK is just £9.44/ hour (compared to an average of £15.26 across other sectors) and calls from the retail union USDAW for a pay-rise have been met by the British Retail Consortium saying now is “not the right time”.

This soar in sales and profits for the retail bosses would not have been possible without their workers. Without staff restocking shelves, working checkouts, cleaning, tidying etc, the truth is that no money would have been made. Rich suits, sitting in a high-rise office, don’t do any of the real work, it’s working-class people that do. The Covid-19 crisis has brought to the fore the role of the working class. When non-essential workplaces were shut, their profits plummeted – this is because the workers weren’t there to do the jobs that provide the bosses their profits.

Fighting trade unions needed

It is time for an end to the exploitative and abusive conditions that retail staff are forced to work in. There has been a hesitancy at the top of the trade unions to organise any real response to the conditions workers are facing in the Covid-19 crisis. Lets not forget the callous disregard supermarket bosses have shown for retail workers. Less than a year ago, Asda workers were sacked for refusing to accept the new ‘contract 6’ which stripped overtime pay, slashed night shift pay, and cut holiday entitlement and paid breaks.

According to the Office for National Statistics’ analysis of Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales, retail workers are one of the groups at the highest risk, along with other low-paid workers. Surely this should set alarm bells ringing for USDAW and the like, and should provoke a massive response from them?

When workers organise and fight, they win. We saw this in the Harland & Wolff occupation in the summer of 2019 and the Wrightbus protests, where workers won back their jobs. Debenhams workers in the South, organised in the Mandate trade union, are taking action to stop the company closing down 11 stores and making over 2,000 workers redundant, a disgraceful act especially during a pandemic.

A trade union with 450,000 members, like USDAW, has the potential to win better conditions, pay and contracts for retail workers. To win this, a fighting approach is needed, based on the real power retail workers have in society, not on sweetheart ‘partnership’ deals with profit-hungry bosses. This movement should raise demands such as; a £12/hour minimum wage, proper PPE and health and safety regulations during the Covid-19 crisis, an end to the abuse of retail staff, and better working hours with fair breaks.

Capitalist system perpetuates exploitation – it must go

As shown by the disgraceful treatment of retail and other essential workers during this pandemic, the capitalist system perpetuates the disrespect, poor wages, terrible conditions and oppression that working-class people face. It is capitalism’s brutal drive for profit that makes sure wages are low, cuts are rampant and working conditions are poor.

The only lasting solution to these problems is the fight for a socialist society. Workers make the world run, so workers should run the world. If this crisis has shown one thing, it is that the capitalist class have no interest in protecting the health, safety, and lives of workers. But this crisis has also shown us the inspirational role the working class play in society, with NHS workers battling the virus on the frontline, retail workers providing essential services, and General Electric workers walking out and staging protests in New York to demand that their skills be used to make ventilators.

A mass movement of workers and young people can put an end to the rotten system of capitalism, by fighting for a socialist society where the key sections of the economy – such as big retail companies, manufacturing, energy and transport – would be nationalised and democratically run by the workers. Working-class people know what is best for society, the best ways to run their industries, and are able to put public need before private profits. A society run in this way would effectively deal with the climate crisis, be able to minimise and better manage any future pandemics, and create better conditions for all workers.

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