The Socialist 25 March 2020 |
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Retail and the coronavirus outbreak - organise to defend workers interests
Iain Dalton and Ryan Aldred, Socialist Party members in Usdaw shop workers' union
Coronavirus is sending tremors through capitalist society. Many workers who have been enduring increasing casualised working conditions, such as zero or short-hour contracts, have had further cuts to sick pay and other contractual changes.
But workers in the food manufacturing, distribution and retail sectors, which Usdaw organises, are now like an 'emergency service'.
Given the bulk of Usdaw's membership is concentrated in four large supermarket chains (Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons and Co-op) then this throws up huge questions for members and reps to deal with in ensuring our members health and safety while providing these vital services.
Health and safety
It is clear many retail workers will have to remain at work through this crisis to help ensure supplies of food, but this raises crucial issues of health and safety. Many workers experience of cleaning schedules in normal times is that there often isn't enough time to complete cleaning rotas. Reports indicate that new cleaning regimes installed by companies to attempt to protect workers from coronavirus are simply not carried through.
To ensure any procedures are fully implemented, and additional ones brought in where workers demand them, members of retail unions need to come together in stores and establish local health and safety committees. Reps should take the initiative to try and establish them. This can raise issues with management for action - while also being prepared to use provisions under health and safety legislation to refuse to work in unsafe environments. This also applies to protection from abuse and assault.
Given government advice for workers and their immediate household is to self-isolate if they have symptoms of coronavirus, and the closures of schools due to the outbreak, then we have to demand that any worker who can't work is not financially worse off.
We welcome that Usdaw's call for food supply chain, pharmacy and funeral workers to be classed as 'key workers' has been recognised, with schools helping to provide childcare for those workers. And we support the demands that National Education Union members are putting forward to ensure this is done as safely as possible.
The government should immediately introduce price controls on staple goods and supplies as well as rationing of items to ensure fair distribution. These measures, in addition to changes to opening hours to facilitate restocking, should be agreed in discussion with union representatives. Any proposals to move staff from their regular duties and shifts should be done under the control of the union to ensure those workers are capable of carrying out those new duties.
There are widespread reports of recruitment drives by retail companies, particularly to assist with expanding online deliveries. Retail union reps should have the opportunity to attend induction meetings and bring these workers into the union. We believe those jobs should be full-time ones, unless workers choose to work part-time.
The government has talked about wanting to work with trade unions to tackle this crisis. If the government is serious about this then it should bring in immediate measures such as compulsory collective bargaining throughout the retail sector to ensure full measures to protect workers and their interests. Usdaw should call on the government to increase the minimum wage immediately to at least the £10 an hour it currently demands, although it should be aiming higher.
Despite the talk of 'working together' in the joint statement by the major supermarket chains, for their managements its profits that ultimately come first.
Rather than simply going along with company directives, retail unions should be putting demands forward in workplaces where they has a presence. Where companies are claiming to struggle, unions should demand that they open their books to trade union scrutiny to ensure that they are not simply guarding profits.
Supermarket share prices are rising compared to most other retail companies who are struggling due to store closures and reduced custom. This indicates that the markets think they're making a killing.
On 17 March, for example, shares in Sainsbury's were up by 6.6%, Morrisons was up by 5% and Tesco was up by 1%.
The chaos and competition of the market has also been exposed, and competition laws have had to be relaxed to ensure companies can share supply chains and delivery vans. This shows the vital need for coordination and socialist planning of our food supply chain, rather than the chaos that the capitalist 'free market' has created.
Ultimately the only way to guarantee that companies are run on the basis of social need rather than private profit is by bringing them into public ownership under democratic workers' control and management.
Retail and distribution workers have a fundamental role in securing the safety and sustenance of the wider population. Usdaw must step up if it is to earn the authority among workers to call itself the campaigning union and other retail union's must follow suit.
View from the shopfloor
A Sainsbury's rep told us that: "You don't see empty shelves like this, even at Christmas". Sainsbury's has given workers seven days fully-paid leave for self-isolating but "given the government now says 14 days isolation that should be extended immediately". "We had a shipment of hand sanitiser, and it was good that Sainsbury's has been putting some of this aside for staff, ensuring that all checkout operators and the kiosk have access to it. However, there are no procedures in place for wiping down door and trolley handles.
"The store has a sign-up sheet for people willing to do shopping for others who have to isolate - obviously that's a help to those people, but I can't help feeling that Sainsbury's are doing it to protect their profits by making sure people shop here."
Shelves cleared by profit-hungry supermarkets permitting uncontrolled panic buying, photo Derek Harper/CC (Click to enlarge)
A Morrisons café worker told us about the turmoil in their store: "We only started displaying coronavirus guidelines in the cafe about social distancing, which no one pays attention to. The soap in the cafe that staff use is making my skin crack from washing and I have no idea if it even kills coronavirus. We haven't been supplied any hand sanitiser because customers get priority, and the moment it's put out it's gone.
We've had basically no staff in. I've had to shut down the cafe with only two people, one of whom had only worked three shifts prior. I've had no one to cover my breaks because no one else can take over the till.
"And, get this, Morrison's has graciously set up a trolley for people to purchase and donate items to people in the hospital next door instead of just donating the stock for free!"
A food factory worker and Usdaw member says: "There have been changes in procedure - with staggered breaks, fewer tables in the canteen and further apart; tables sanitised after every use, extra hygiene with staff spraying everything all day, extra sanitiser on entering the building and by the clocking in machine.
"Some lines have been delisted, concentrating on products that are, or can be, frozen. People currently undergoing cancer treatment or with underlying conditions have been told to self-isolate. We seem to be taking more precautions for the staff than any of the stores."