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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Newly essential workers

by New Worker correspondent

THROUGHOUT the present crisis shop workers have played a vital role in maintaining essential supplies. Thanks to the sterling efforts of lorry drivers and supermarket workers this correspondent has not had to go without basics such as Stilton and almond stuffed olives.

Shop workers union USDAW is quite rightly demanding that such efforts be properly rewarded. Their general secretary, Paddy Lillis, said: “For too long the essential contribution of workers in retail, distribution, delivery, food manufacturing and the funeral sectors have been undervalued and underpaid. After this crisis is over, we cannot return to the way things were before. Too many of our key workers delivering essential services are struggling to exist on low pay, facing abuse from the public and working under pressures that impact their mental health.”

He also noted that: “Retail was already facing significant challenges before the Coronavirus outbreak. We need decisive Government interventions to kick-start the economy at the end of the outbreak. They must work with relevant stakeholders such as the British Retail Consortium and USDAW to design an industrial strategy for the retail sector. Tackling the unfair advantages online retail has over the high street and delivering good quality, productive jobs across the sector” is a priority.

key workers

The union is arguing for a minimum wage rate of £10 per hour for all workers, pointing out that, as a result of the crisis, workers across many typically low-paying industries have suddenly become key workers, essential to health of the nation.

It also observes that short-hours contracts are leaving many workers without the hours they want or need to get by. A minimum 16-hour contract ensures that work is offered on a meaningful basis that can only be reduced through express agreement from the worker. In addition, where individuals are regularly working over their contracted hours, additional hours should be guaranteed in the contract. This would result in workers being able to plan their lives without the stress of irregular hours and pay. Like many unions, they want a ban on zero -hours contracts.

It also demands a specific law on the Protection of Workers, arguing that the current legal protections are failing to protect retail staff and the Government must urgently introduce a new law that makes it a specific offence to abuse public-facing workers. This offence must carry stiffer penalties, although it does not say if birching should be restored.

Improved sick pay provision is another demand. Whilst many large chains already offer sick pay above the statutory level, many do not, particularly at the bargain end of the market. This lottery should be ended. USDAW calls for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) to be paid from day one and reflect average earnings for all workers.

Job security is another major issue in the retail sector. There has been constant restructuring for several years, with many long-established chains vanishing and the threat of job cuts always just around the corner. Shop workers need stronger protections against redundancy and dismissal, from day one of employment. USAW wants proper consultation about new technology and investment in skills so that workers can keep up in a changing workplace.

More generally it calls for a proper Social Security system, citing the problems that the new Universal Credit has face ever since it was launched, in particular it demands the five-week wait to be scrapped and for a complete overhaul of the system. Until then, no-one should be forced to move from legacy benefits onto Universal Credit.


Noting that it has only been in recent months that governments have been listening seriously to trade unions, it fears that this will not last and demands that whenever the Government sets up review bodies it must include representatives of the workforce.

The union also focused on the plight of women in the retail industry. It points out that: “Only 37 per cent of workers earning over £10 per hour are women, so our call for a minimum wage of over £10 per hour helps address the gender pay gap for low-paid women workers.”

At the same time, 70 per cent of workers on contracts of 16 hours or less are women. At the moment school and nursey closures have put extra pressure on women workers, who often have had to reduce hours or take unpaid leave to provide childcare.

Regarding gender pay differentials, USDAW notes that: “The current pace of change is slow, without significant action it could take 60 years to reach pay parity between men and women. These essential roles have been undervalued and underpaid for too long. Women on low pay and poverty pay need equal pay and they need decent pay. It is time for a new deal for women workers.”

One major problem USDAW needs to address is the extremely low membership density in the retail sector: its claimed membership is 450,000. There are 3.19 million workers in the UK retail sector, which means that USDAW represents just over seven per cent of them. According to government statistics, over the last quarter of a century the trade union density has fluctuated in the range of 10–12 per cent. Union organisation is strongest, not on the shop floor but in warehouses and the transport branches of the industry. Here GMB and Unite have a presence.


Some anti-union retailers such as Marks and Spencer and John Lewis, which of course do not have any vulgar workers but only “partners”, keep their workers happy by being the better-paid in the sector and feeding them with 30 pence meals in the staff canteen. The newer arrivals on the high street are more ruthless, whilst competitors in out-of-town internet-based warehouses are much worse with regards to trade unions.

It must be said that USDAW does not have a great reputation. On the Danish website Trust Pilot, it has a mere eight per cent excellent rating and 91 per cent bad. Such sites can give a very misleading view – dis-satisfied people air their views more that those who are satisfied. People will correctly complain about a fly in their soup but not offer congratulations for observing reasonable hygiene, but that is a very high proportion compared with other trade unions. Common complaints are that shop-floor reps are in the pockets of management.

Workers at both Morrison’s and Tesco say the union has been ineffective in recent restructurings. An ex-member working in Tesco lamented that USDAW: “have given away all the benefits we used to have at Tesco, without a murmur. No more bonuses, free shares, double time on Sundays, time and a half overtime, fixed hour contracts, full time contracts.”

This is a ‘What comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ question of how do you build up membership from a low base when you lack an effective cadre? Another problem is that ethical shopping is all very well if you can afford it – not many people can afford to be choosey where they shop.