Retail Reopens – Time To Organise!

June 12, 2020

This Monday, non-essential shops are set to reopen in England. With a string of major store closures in Wolverhampton, Merry Hill and elsewhere, shop staff are caught between a rock and hard place of either being rushed back to unsafe workplaces, or no job to go to at all!

In these two articles from our weekly paper, The Socialist, we lay out the programme for making sure that retail workers aren’t sacrificed for big business profits:

Non-essential retail to open – organising at work is essential

Ryan Aldred, Usdaw Plymouth and Districts General branch secretary (personal capacity)

Boris Johnson has announced government plans to relax lockdown further, with a wider opening of non-essential retail on 15 June.

The mood among many workers in retail at this news will understandably be very mixed. There will be those who are keen to get back to work as quickly as possible as they can’t afford not to.

Most retail workers will have been inflicted with a 20% pay cut, as the government has only provided 80% of pay through the job retention scheme.

Considering wages in the retail sector are low, with many on minimum wage, coupled with the abundance of zero and low-hours contracts, retail workers will have been hit disproportionately hard during the pandemic.

Likewise, given the ever-growing list of recognised names disappearing from the high street altogether, some will be anxious to get back to work to avoid the risk of a looming redundancy. With the government being pushed to consider plans to buy stakes in some ailing companies, union leaders should fight for companies that have fallen victim to the pandemic to be brought into public ownership to save jobs.

Many will be worried, and rightly so, with new transmissions even in lockdown still totalling 2,000 per day. Already some supermarket bosses have recklessly scrapped policing social-distancing measures, and have quickly moved away from limiting the number of customers in-store, despite the continued lockdown.

Non-essential retail bosses will undoubtedly try to get away with rushing to return to business as usual, as they try to catch up on rent arrears for the last quarter, as well as clawing back lost profits. The Tory government has released plenty of guidance. But guidance is the key word, as none of it is enforceable, leaving things massively open to abuse by bosses.

In a press release on 26 May, Paddy Lillis, general secretary of shopworkers’ union Usdaw, said that businesses will “pay little attention to government advice”. The union leadership should make it abundantly clear that it will not tolerate unsafe working practices.

Even government guidance has conceded that “no one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment.” Where workers are put at risk, they should organise walkouts under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

As the risks cannot be completely mitigated, workers should demand higher wages and a hazard bonus.

Workers should be encouraged to join a union and challenge unscrupulous employers. Workers and health and safety reps should emphatically insist on conducting risk assessments to guard against corners being cut, and to ensure that safety is put firmly before profits.

They should also consider putting forward reduced opening hours to ensure price changes, restocking, merchandising and stock checks can be done safely. Any non-essential tasking should be scrapped, along with performance targets, until the pandemic has passed.

It has also been reported that the government is considering suspending Sunday trading laws, under the smokescreen of helping key workers to shop. But in reality, it is to try and boost the economy, at the workers’ expense. Sunday is the only day of the week that stores cannot be open for 24 hours a day, and shorter working days on Sundays should be defended so that workers have more time with their families and time off.

Debenhams: Workers made to pay for Covid-19 crisis – nationalise to save jobs

Iain Dalton, Usdaw Broad Left chair

As a warning of the coming recession we are now entering, Debenhams went into administration in April last year, with 22 stores closing, and all but 39 of the remaining stores having rent reductions. Fast forward a year, and Debenhams is back in administration again, with more store closures looming.

First, the company disgracefully announced the closure of its Irish business, comprising 11 stores – while transferring its profitable Irish online business to the UK parent company, as well as all of the leases and assets in stores. The workforce was to receive no redundancy pay from the company.

As we’ve reported, workers in the stores, members of Mandate, the main Irish retail workers trade union, held protests outside stores and the Irish parliament. Since an attempt to remove assets from the store in Cork they have been holding pickets outside stores to block this.

But meanwhile, here in Britain, where a greater number of stores are due to close – 17 in total, with a few more still hanging in the balance – there has been no such campaign from Usdaw. During this crisis the union’s only public action has been to issue a press release calling Usdaw “the trade union for Debenhams staff”, and to call on Debenhams to recognise Usdaw.

Given the brutal way it has treated Mandate members in Ireland, where the union was recognised, it’s a totally utopian position to think they’ll listen to Usdaw doing less!

Since then the company has announced more than 1,000 jobs within the company are to go, as it starts to reopen its doors on 15 June, both in head office and in services in-store, such as caf├ęs that won’t be opening under social-distancing guidelines. The company is refusing to continue furloughing them, and is making them redundant with immediate effect, without any notice or consultation period.

Understandably, these workers, who didn’t know their jobs were at risk until they were told they were redundant, are outraged. The restaurant manager of the Debenhams store in Sheffield told the local newspaper: “We all just feel really let down… some of my staff have worked there for more than 20 years… Debenhams is still getting help from the government. I don’t understand why they need to let us go right now when they could have kept us on for another month and we’d still get furlough pay.”

Debenhams is just one of a number of companies entering into administration at the moment. The latest additions to the list have been footwear company Aldo and lingerie company Victoria’s Secret.

Unless a concerted campaign to defend jobs in the retail sector is waged, Debenhams may end up being the first of many big retail chains which stays in business by making workers’ pay. That’s why Usdaw supporters in the National Shop Stewards Network have called for a day of action of protests outside Debenhams stores on 15 June.

We’ll be expressing our solidarity with Mandate members in Ireland fighting for their jobs, as well as calling for Debenhams to be nationalised to save jobs. Usdaw should be urgently raising the question of public ownership to save jobs, as outlined in the 2017 Usdaw conference proposition adopted after the collapse of BHS.

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