Labour Research June 2020


Essential shopworkers experience tough times

Tens of thousands of workers in shops and the supply chain have played a critical role in helping to maintain our families and communities during the coronavirus crisis.

Essential workers in shops, distribution warehouses, road transport and delivery have continued to go to work throughout the pandemic to ensure people can continue to put food on the table.

“If any good comes out of this, it will be that it has shone a light on who the key workers are, those who are going the extra mile,” Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the Usdaw shopworkers’ union told Labour Research.

While whole swathes of the country shut down to stop the spread of the coronavirus, supermarkets and other food retailers recorded a 10% increase in sales in March when the lockdown began and have taken on thousands more temporary workers to meet demand.

Abuse of shopworkers

It has been a tough few months for the workers involved. At the end of April, over a month into the lockdown, a survey by Usdaw found that not only were these workers putting themselves and their families at greater risk of catching the virus by going to work, but they were also facing a sharp spike in abuse, with incidents doubling since the start of the crisis.

The survey of over 7,000 members found that one in six workers face abuse on every shift they work. At the extreme end of the abuse, out of 5,000 shopworkers who responded to the survey, 196 have been physically assaulted.

“In the first few weeks there was some really deplorable behaviour from customers,” said Lillis. “The mind boggles at the behaviour of this small but significant minority of people.” While he said the situation has settled down, he warned that the issue of abuse remains a live one in the sector.

“There’s still high levels [of abuse] even outside of panic buying and this has huge effects on people’s physical and mental health.”

These findings also reflect a long-term trend of increasing abuse, threats and violence against shop staff. Between 2015 and the start of the crisis, the number of workers experiencing verbal abuse increased from just over half to around two-thirds.

“It’s been a worrying trend for a while,” said Lillis citing shopworkers having to cope with 10 years of austerity, policing of underage sales and dealing with people with substance abuse problems, which have all contributed to the escalation.

Many of these workers now face the added stress of being at significantly higher risk of contracting the virus due to the nature of their work. The survey found that 29% have had absences from work related to COVID-19, because of illness, self-isolating or shielding.

Seventy per cent of those surveyed reported that they have raised issues with their employer around concerns over the coronavirus, and many respondents commented that they felt increasingly stressed and anxious, and expressed concerns about the long-term impact on their mental health.

“I have never known a single issue cause nearly three-quarters of our members to raise concerns with their employer in such a short space of time,” said Lillis.

Non-food retail

During the pandemic, workers in the retail sector have had very different experiences depending on where they work.

Nearly two-fifths of Britain’s retailers have had to close as a result of the lockdown, and hundreds of thousands of retail workers working in non-essential retail have been furloughed in the expectation that they can return to work when shops reopen.

But many will never reopen. High street names such as Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston are set to disappear, and a survey by the British Independent Retailers Association said that 20% of retailers did not intend to reopen after lockdown restrictions are relaxed.

According to a new analysis by the Centre for Retail Research, based on a three-month lockdown, there could be 20,620 store closures this year — up from about 16,000 in 2019 — and resulting in up to 250,000 job losses.

The drop in consumer spending power has long been a source of concern for the retail sector: stagnant wages, high import costs and the impact of Brexit on the value of the pound had already taken their toll prior to the pandemic.

Last year, in response to the crisis on the high street, the Usdaw shopworkers’ union launched an industrial strategy for retail calling for a number of key measures to be introduced, including a reform of business rates to help level the playing field between online and “bricks and mortar” retailers.

“There is a whole mountain of problems and this emergency has just massively increased the pressure on the sector,” the general secretary of Usdaw, Paddy Lillis, told Labour Research.

“The longer we are in lockdown, the more damage is done.

“But we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. There is no price on someone’s life and we’re very clear on this.”

The union has been working with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to advise the retail sector on how it can be safely brought out of lockdown.

A joint statement issued by Lillis and Helen Dickinson, BRC chief executive said: “Reopening stores will involve a huge investment in protections for colleagues and customers — supermarkets alone have spent around £130 million since lockdown on social distancing and hygiene measures, including plastic screens, signage, floor markings, PPE and marshalling — and all retailers will face these unavoidable costs as lockdown is lifted,” they said.

“But while we are confident that retailers will make a success of store reopening, we recognise that we are part of a much larger eco-system, with public transport, location of stores on high streets or in shopping centres, policing, and many other matters to be considered.

“So far government has not consulted in detail with industry about all these factors, and if we are to make a success of the whole project this needs to happen urgently otherwise the practical concerns being raised by retailers may not be addressed.”

Employers need to engage with unions

“Employers need to listen to their staff and have a real and meaningful dialogue with their workforce.

“There are still too many employers who refuse to engage with trade unions, at a time when we need to be working together to get through this crisis.”

Lillis paid tribute to the volunteer reps in workplaces across the country who have been helping members through the crisis and dealing with record numbers of issues. These sentiments have been echoed by other unions with members in the food industry.

Food processing

Bev Clarkson, national officer for the food industry for general union Unite, told Labour Research that their reps working in food production had to be constantly vigilant to ensure that workers were being properly protected.

“Our reps are under enormous pressure,” she said, explaining that not only were they having to monitor to ensure health and safety measures were being properly followed, but that all this was in an environment where production levels were up by as much as 60%.

Their vigilance has paid off again and again. In one example given by Clarkson, the employer was convinced that there was no issue with social distancing in the plant and was forced to pay a visit after the rep’s insistence that this was not the case.

“The employer had to see with their own eyes that there was a problem,” Clarkson explained. “They now employ a marshal to implement social distancing.”

In another factory, management installed a curtain between workers on the production line, but reps again pointed out that this was insufficient as it did nothing to protect workers facing each other across the production line.

Food and drink manufacturing

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), and the Usdaw, Unite, BFAWU and GMB unions, have joined together for the first time to commend the efforts of all those working in food and drink manufacturing who are keeping the nation fed and maintaining the UK’s food security. As the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, food and drink employs 430,000 people in every part of the country.

In a joint statement, the FDF and the unions highlighted the critical importance of working together at this exceptionally demanding time to ensure the workforce is safe, protected and respected.

The statement highlights the good practice underway in many workplaces, including social distancing and hygiene standards, and support for the workforce.

It states: “Every single person working in food and drink manufacturing — whether in production, distribution, or packaging — is doing vital work feeding the nation. The issue of food security has moved to its rightful place as a top priority.

The unions and FDF are aware of the exceptionally demanding situation in the sector and are proud of the work being done, but also equally determined to ensure food and drink workers and their families stay safe.”

The statement applauded examples of the support for workers who cannot be in work and the businesses that are paying in full:

• those in the “highly vulnerable” category during the 12 weeks who need to be at home and isolated in line with government guidelines and;

• those with COVID-19 symptoms or who are self-isolating.

The unions all expressed their hope for further joint working. Sarah Woolley, general secretary of the BFAWU foodworkers’ union said they welcomed the opportunity to work together with the FDF and other trade unions across the sector “to ensure that our members remain safe and healthy and their workplaces survive the economic impact of COVID-19”.


Meanwhile, workers at a warehouse in Barnsley on a contract for retailer Marks & Spencer gave their senior Unite rep a standing ovation when he told them management had agreed to stop making them share headsets.

The members had threatened to walk off the job after being told that regular cleaning made sharing headsets safe. Managers then agreed to suspend “voice picking” until every worker had their own headset.

Clarkson said the situation has mostly improved — “when we were first in lockdown it was really not ideal”.

She blames much of this on a lack of clarity from government and the lack of the mandatory imposition of the two-metre rule. “It’s really not good enough to say that wherever possible [this rule] should be adhered to — employers just use this as an excuse and say it’s not possible.”

Clarkson has been in touch with unions in the US and used the information they provided — of plants forced to close down due to the virus spreading round the workforce — to convince employers here to step up protection.

This has helped lead to a range of measures such as booths in canteens so workers don’t have to sit together; staggered start and finish times; separate smoking areas and slowing down production lines so fewer workers need to be on at the same time.

In the early days of the lockdown, the GMB general union had even called on the police to enforce social distancing in some workplaces.

Neil Derrick, the union’s regional secretary for Yorkshire and North Derbyshire wrote to police and crime commissioners across the region asking them to investigate potentially dangerous warehouses.

He said if workers had gathered “cheek by jowl” in the street, “the police would be down on them like a ton of bricks — and rightly so. So why should it be different in these warehouses?”


There have been headlines in relation to employers offering bonuses to staff in recognition of their work at this difficult time. But even this has needed careful monitoring by the unions. “We had one employer who offered an extra 50p an hour but only payable to people at work, not those self-isolating or in a high-risk category,” said Clarkson. “These are low-paid workers, 50p is an awful lot and this is effectively forcing them into work when they’re ill.”

Big name retailers such as Morrisons trebled staff bonuses in recognition of their “huge effort” during the pandemic, and other retailers such as Ocado, Marks & Spencer, Asda, Tesco, Aldi and Sainsbury’s all announced similar bonuses for frontline staff.

But while welcome, these one-off payments do not offer long-term security, said Usdaw’s Lillis. “It’s now evident that retail is at the beating heart of the community,” he said. “But these low-paid workers have been invisible. They need proper pay, proper hours, proper contracts, it’s about job security.”

New deal

Coming out of the crisis, unions want a new deal for workers to end the cycle of low-pay, insecure hours and limited employment rights. “Now they are designated as key workers, risking their own health and that of their families every day, and without them we wouldn’t have been able to keep the country fed and watered,” he emphasised.

“They are doing an exceptional job and they should be paid at least £10 an hour. Their contracts should not be for less than 16 hours a week unless they want that, and their contracts should reflect the actual hours they work.”

He added: “There will be a day of reckoning over pay and terms and conditions. They have stepped up in our hour of need and they need recognition as we go forward.”

Clarkson echoed this sentiment, saying she hoped employers now realise their workers are the main commodity and they need to invest in them.

“These are really low-paid workers, and we hope that when everyone comes out again they will be more appreciated.”

Statement by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), Unite, Usdaw, BFAWU and GMB (

Centre for Retail Research, The Crisis in Retailing: Closures and Job Losses (

Usdaw, Shocking survey shows life is tough on the retail frontline of the Coronavirus Emergency - Usdaw calls for a new deal (

Usdaw, The Coronavirus emergency shows that we need a New Deal for Workers says Usdaw (

Usdaw, Usdaw and BRC working together on how the retail sector can be safely brought out of lockdown (