'Do you want PPE for that?' - dispatches from a retail worker under covid-19

Updated: May 19

After a relaxing week away from work, I am feeling anxious about returning to the supermarket. This feeling is probably shared by many working class people. I am anxious about whether our customers are still adhering to social distancing measures, about how they will react to the one-in, one-out system we have in place when queuing to get in the shop. I am anxious about wearing an uncomfortable visor over my glasses – but if it is a choice between being safe for myself, my colleagues and customers, I know the discomfort is worth it.

Graphic Yaara Cliff

Another thing I have noticed is that security guards in many supermarkets are often not provided with the correct equipment they need to do their job (masks and gloves) but it is this group of workers who are more likely to die of COVID-19 (as of April 20th, 45.7 / 100,000 men who died were security guards).

If all shops are re-opened – what safeguards are being put in place to protect staff and customers? In clothes shops, how will 2m social distancing be implemented in a busy shop, full of racks of clothes? Some stores, such as WH Smiths are trying to make shoppers only touch items they intend to buy, but how does this impact elderly customers, or those with allergies (or those who need to check labels for dietary requirements)?

My trade union USDAW has more than 450,000 members nationwide, covering a wide range of retail and distribution centres. USDAW’s General Secretary recently said, “There will be a day of reckoning once this crisis is over” - but that day should be now! USDAW have carried out a survey of their members, asking about their experiences with customers under lockdown. Of the 7,500 respondents, around 250 described being physically assaulted. These incidents don’t include constant invasion of distancing measures, the stress and anxiety if customers approach too closely, or the arguments in the queue outside the shop if someone is impatient, the assuaults on security guards from a very small number of customers, not to mention shoplifters.

Keir Starmer was asked, in a BBC interview, whether workers should exercise their legal right to refuse to work if they think conditions are dangerous. Shamefully, he replied, “I’d rather not get into that situation, because if we get into that place, then we haven’t reassured people”. This is a complete cop-out by the leader of the so-called opposition.

Men in blue-collar jobs are more than twice as likely as the wider working class to have died from COVID-19, according to the Office for National Statistics. Men made up 2/3 of coronavirus-related deaths so far, in adults between the ages of 20 and 64 (9.9 per 100,000 men). However, the death rate was much higher for “low-skilled, elementary occupations”, where the mortality more than doubled to 21.4 per 100,000. Most at risk amongst this group were male security guards. Likewise, men working in the construction industry were about twice as likely to have died from COVID-19 as the general population. Road transport workers, plan workers and machine operatives also face a high risk, with bus and taxi drivers most exposed to the virus. (Financial Times article, May 11th). Poorer people are bearing the brunt of the crisis, with women working as carers twice as likely to die as women in professional and technical roles.

The General Secretary of the GMB trade union described the figures as “horrifying”. “If you are low paid and working through the COVID-19 crisis, you are more likely to die” - that’s how stark these figures are. Ministers must not force people to return to work until proper guidelines, advice and enforcements are in place to keep people safe”.

Neil Pearce (Professor of Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) said, “In the working-age population, COVID-19 is largely an occupational disease. This is not just true for healthcare and social care workers, but for many other occupations involving public contact. These are many of the same occupations that are now being urged to return to work, in some instances without proper safety measures and PPE being put in place.

A Guardian article reported an increased risk to black and ethnic minority (BAME) people in England and Wales, who are dying at a higher rate than their white counterparts. BAME workers are over-represented in high-risk occupations, including health, transport and social care sectors. The rate of infection of COVID-19 also correlates with deprivation and higher population density.

(Guardian, May 11th).

These figures are a stark reminder that although we are all weathering the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. Workers must be made aware of their right, under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, to withdraw from and to refuse to return to an unsafe workplace. Staff at a Home Bargains shop in South Shields left their workplace over social distancing concerns. An employee there complained that too many people were being allowed inside at one time. A company spokesperson tried to deny that there was any relaxation of social distancing rules or wrongdoing by the company, but staff described no queuing policy being implemented and no-one manning the doors to the shop.

There must be many other examples of unsafe workplaces in terms of infection risk. The question put to Keir Starmer was framed in terms of re-opening schools, but it applies to all workplaces. Is it essential that garden centres, Homebase and B&Q have re-opened? How are they keeping their employees safe? Have they been given adequate supplies of PPE whilst at work?

Where there is a low union density in a workplace, social distancing, and provision of PPE will be harder to implement. Employers, trade union leaders and the government all have a responsibility to ensure our safety in work.

There are also retail workplaces where staff have either been furloughed or have lost their jobs. Debenhams have gone into administration twice – 22 stores were closed last year, and a further seven stores are in the process of closing down. Tens of thousands of retail workers have lost their jobs, wages and redundancy pay. Why is USDAW not demanding that Debenhams is taken into public ownership, in order to safeguard workers’ jobs? In the Republic of Ireland, 2,000 workers are losing their jobs, and outstanding wages / redundancy payments have not been met. Socialist Party members in Ireland have been supporting Debenhams workers, pointing out that we should not be paying the price for the failures of capitalism. John Douglas, the General Secretary of Mandate (a shopworkers’ trade union in Ireland) said that coronavirus may cause 10,000s of job losses – it is clear that this is already happening.

Capitalism only looks after workers’ interests when it is put under pressure from the working class. When the Tory government is desperate to get people working again and the economy “back to normal”, the cynical, heartless nature of capitalism is summed up by a headline in the Telegraph: “The cost of saving lives in this lockdown is too high”.

Instead of capitalism, which will always put wealth and profit before our health and safety, we are fighting to create a society run in the interest of working-class people, for public ownership and nationalisation of struggling workplaces, under democratic control, for no loss of pay, for jobs to be secured by the government, and for a real increase in people’s wages. Everyone has the right to go to work and not feel anxious, and to have the necessary equipment to keep themselves, their colleague and customers safe. We need to build a mass, socialist movement which unites NHS workers and users, retail workers, care home workers, transport workers and precarious workers.

This crisis has shown the huge power that is in the hands of many of the some of the most low-paid and undervalued workers. It has shown the crucial role retail workers play in our society. Now, we need to be organised. We need to use our collective strength to fight for safety at work, to end job losses and to demand decent pay and conditions for all workers coming out of this crisis. Our union leaderships have a duty to lead such a struggle. If they are unwilling, they should stand aside for those who will. The experiences workers have been through in recent weeks are demonstrating to more and more people that capitalism is incapable of responding adequately to global crises. More than ever, we need a socialist alternative.