It’s Christmas time and the stores are heaving, packed with people desperate to buy presents and escape the crush. The checkout queues stretch out of the door into the cold, but inside temperatures are rising.
For shop workers this most festive time is marked by aching, swollen feet from standing all day, and the constant beep of the till still in their head when it finally hits the pillow.
And, tomorrow it will all start again—with the same inane Christmas songs, the demanding mangers and the stressed out customers.
Sales during this year’s Christmas period are projected to hit £84.7 billion, with the average adult spending almost £550 on gifts.
Retail and distribution workers face surging Covid infections and an increasing cost of living.
Low pay and poor conditions are common, resulting in many companies being understaffed, unable to fill temporary Christmas positions.
This year Sainsbury’s hopes to employ an extra 22,000 temporary staff and 7,000 vacancies are available at John Lewis and Waitrose.
Online marketplace Amazon is hoping to gain 20,000 temporary workers in Britain.
But poor and often dangerous working conditions are common for the people in these roles. These conditions aren’t helped by packed shops, high tensions and annoying Christmas adverts played on loop.
Con is a retail assistant at Primark in York.
They told Socialist Worker, “Returns rails are building up, queues are growing, and the shop is untidy.
“And we’re getting stressed because it’s hot, crowded, and customers don’t listen about masks.”
Con said his workplace, like most other stores, is understaffed meaning employees are overworked. “That means staff are leaving, which makes it worse,” they said.
“At Christmas, Primark hires a bunch of temporary staff, that’s how I started.”
Con argues that the precarious nature of temporary staff means they suffer poor working conditions.
“Temporary staff requests for holiday aren’t given much weight,” they said. “And for all workers, there’s no holiday in November or December.
“Christmas Eve and Boxing Day—everyone wants them off. However, they’re super busy so the store is open and most staff are forced in.
“They should offer extra money or holidays in exchange for working on peak days.”
According to new research conducted by the TUC union federation, nearly 650,000 workers in hospitality, retail, arts and entertainment do not qualify for statutory sick pay.
British sick pay rates also leave over ten million people with an income lower than the basic cost of living.
Con said working conditions across the retail sector are poor.
They added, “People’s breaks are staggered so you generally can’t talk to colleagues because we’re so understaffed.
“We can’t take too long on the toilet and if it’s busy we generally can’t go at all.
“We’re not allowed to enforce mask wearing.
“And we’re all on flexible contracts, meaning that I don’t know which day of the week I have off until two weeks in advance so I can’t plan things.”
Al is an HGV driver for a company based in North London.
He told Socialist Worker, “Most drivers are expected to work longer for Christmas, so I know the stress far too well. I’ve spent many Christmases driving.
“The company I work for relies on temporary, seasonal contract work in preparation for Christmas.
“The issue with these contracts is that rather than working directly with the distributor you’re working for lots of different people who, when something goes wrong all try to blame each other.
“Most of the time the driver gets blamed for being late despite traffic and the roads being worse this time of year and we are legally required to take breaks.”
Drivers are required to take 45-minute breaks every four and a half hours. New technology in a lot of lorries records bad driving and speeding which can result in the driver being sacked.
Al said despite this, “There’s a pressure from managers to go faster, take fewer breaks. But we can’t do that or we risk losing our jobs—it’s a lose‑lose situation.”
Al recently moved into this job nine months ago. He had previously worked across Europe for 15 years.
His reason for moving was mostly the pandemic. “I felt, compared to train or bus drivers or whoever, HGV drivers had so many more uncertainties like with borders closing, Covid tests and things like that,” he said.
“A lot of days I woke up not knowing if I’d still be in a job next week.
“It was also a decision based on pay, I was offered about the same money for less work, so that was an easy decision.”
Al believes the reason for the pay rise is because “Covid showed how important drivers are”.
He said, “Everything moved online and the only way people were getting the things they needed was through delivery, so we were important to everyone.
“Drivers aren’t going to accept anything happening to their wages, they can get a job elsewhere.”
In October the bosses’ Road Haulage Association found from a survey of its members that there is a shortage of more than 100,000 qualified drivers in Britain.
A major reason for this is European drivers, who previously worked in Britain emigrating. Hard borders and Covid have also limited the number coming to Britain.
The reliance on a limited pool of HGV drivers has allowed some unionised drivers to win significant pay rises.
Tanker drivers in Liverpool secured a 17.5 percent rise and GXO drivers won a 23 percent pay increase.
These victories show that taking action and being willing to strike is the way to win decent pay and turn the tables.
Steve is a sales assistant at a Majestic Wines branch in London.
According to Steve, unlike most other shops and businesses throughout the pandemic, “the workload increased as people couldn’t get alcohol from the pubs or restaurants”.
A typical day for him includes answering the phone, stocking shelves and customer service. This can be “stressful” and “exhausting”, he said.
For the past two years Majestic Wines sales assistants have been given just a one percent annual pay rise. Steve pointed out that, “Compared to inflation, that’s essentially a pay cut.”
“Our delivery drivers have had their pay increased much more, it’s still not enough but whenever I’ve asked they’re quiet about it. I’m guessing they’ve been told by management not to tell us.
“But it shows profits are through the roof and they can probably afford to give us a pay rise also.”
Steve caught Covid but believes that at the time his workplace had very good safety restrictions. “But that’s all gone now, there are no limits,” he added.
Because of this, like most retail workers, he dreads working over the much busier Christmas period.
“We’re now all working harder and expected to work overtime,” he said. “Some of us are working 60 hour weeks and that’s normal.
“Usually working harder is recognised with a bonus. But managers use bonuses and high staffing levels as an excuse to freeze pay and offer low pay rises.
“We have sold 30 percent more stock this week compared to the same time last year. But we still missed out on our bonus targets because they were increased.”
Steve argues for the presence of a strong union where workers can organise to fight for more.
“We’re not unionised, I think I’m the only union member,” he said. “Usdaw doesn’t have a presence here, I’ve never seen them.
“Come April people will be pissed off with another low pay rise. No workplace organisation makes it impossible to fight for more.”
Amazon’s Black Friday sales in Britain raked in £2 billion. But this fortune was built off the back of the poor treatment of workers.
Amazon managers use cameras and technology that monitors and tracks workers to ensure peak efficiency. The demands on workers are so high some have reported urinating in bottles and wearing nappies.
A recent investigation led by the Mirror found that 1,000 ambulances have been called to Amazon fulfilment centres since 2018.
One hundred and seventy eight calls were made by the fulfilment centre in Tilbury, Essex, where one worker died last month.
Many workers are forced to work through illness as for the first three sick days most Amazon workers in Britain don’t receive pay.
Similar issues affect Amazon workers internationally.
Michael is an Amazon delivery driver in Florida, US.
He told Socialist Worker, “I haven’t had a single good day since working at Amazon going on two plus months.
“Everyday in the morning we load up our vans with all of our assigned packages and then go out and deliver them.”
Michael didn’t notice a huge change leading into the Christmas period because “every part of the job is pretty stressful”.
He added, “This is made harder because, I would say, management wants you to work way harder so you don’t work long hours and get paid more.
“So managers definitely put more pressure onto me.”
Michael and his colleagues could be threatened with repercussions or job losses for trying to work quicker.
“Driving faster is a huge no because that results in infractions,” he said.
“Drivers rarely take breaks because there aren’t enough workers and there isn’t enough time to have a break.”
Michael explained how working for a huge company and the hierarchy that’s imposed means all of the people he works with are “stressed out”.
He added, “I think if they paid more, people would have an easier time with all the shit they have to do, but fixing it is impossible.
“Millions of people are going to order from Amazon every day and someone needs to deliver it.
“It sucks but I don’t think there is a solution, higher pay would just make it easier to swallow.”
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
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