Working conditions in retail - Confessions of a store grunt


AT THE MOMENT there are approximately 236,400 people working in the wholesale and retail trade. Most of us working in this sector are badly paid, as unskilled labour usually is. Recently Roches Stores office workers went out on strike for better pay. Some of them were being paid as little as £4.16 an hour. They were successful and got a 25% pay rise.

They are part of the MANDATE Trade Union. This luxury (I use the term lightly) is not enjoyed by many workers in the retail industry. Many of us work in small to medium sized shops with a small staff and no trade union organisation or tradition.

Working in small numbers means being divided from other workers and this makes us easy pickings for exploitation by employers. Most dissension is expressed over a cup of tea and a fag while you and your mate explore the many ways a person (namely your boss) can be described as a wanker. Meanwhile the boss mulls over the thought that if she or he doesn't pay an extra 20p an hour to staff, a second Merc might be in order.

Low wages are only one aspect of working in a small business but it leads to other problems. Your boss isn't obliged to provide a pension plan and, when on miserly wages, workers can't afford to set up their own. Paid sick leave is also left to the discretion of the employer.

A doctor's note proving you're not the layabout lout you're suspected of being can cost the guts of a day's wage and is hardly the worth the hassle of getting one. Legally a full-time worker is entitled to four weeks holidays a year. Some of us (myself included) are only given two weeks a year. There is not much one can do about it in this kind of situation - take it or leave us as they say.

The "perks"

Bonuses for the highest sales are one of the perks of the job. If, for example, you can make your boss a thousand pounds in one day she or he may flick you forty. This usually goes to the most charming and gab-gifted employee, but these type of bonuses always lead to resentment and bitchiness among the employees as they vie for the extra pittance.

The lies flow fast and thick as customers are told how wonderful and necessary a certain product is. When wages are low an extra forty pounds can make all the difference.

Overtime doesn't yield much better rewards with overtime pay being rounded off at five pounds an hour. We must accept this insult as we aren't given a choice whether we want to work the extra hours or not.

Most of us have to work every Saturday, normally with the inevitable Friday night hangover. (That's why you may find yourself complaining about the service quite often - sorry!) Sundays and a weekday are our days off. If however there is a public holiday that becomes our day off and we work the other five days on normal pay. If we take it as it should be - that public holidays are paid holidays - it essentially means that we work one day for free.


There doesn't seem to be much one can do to improve conditions like these at the moment. In these small shops and stores most workers won't be in trade unions. Some might be in their relevant trade union as silent members which means being a paid member of a union but without a branch or close contact with other trade unionists.

In some shops, especially family businesses, management can out-number staff. They could easily afford a 100% staff turn over if the staff got stroppy and complained about the conditions. Ironically the bosses will probably be better organised than the workers through the medium of the SFA (the Scabby Fuckers Association A.K.A. the Small Firms Association).

The law doesn't offer much back-up either, no surprise there. The Unfair Dismissals Act only applies to employees who have given 12 or more months service. For those of us with a healthy distrust of the system, this wouldn't be an option anyway.

The Feel Good factor

If there isn't much you can do about it minor acts of sabotage are recommended, such as under pricing products, arriving late, winking at shop-lifters and never, never having a crap on your lunch break. This should always be done while you're meant to be on the shop floor, that way the boss pays for you sitting on the pot.

My boss would probably say that I'm a clock-watching, time-wasting, trouble-making lout. And he'd be right, I am. But as they say "if you pay me peanuts I'm gonna work like a monkey". And this monkey quits!


From Workers Solidarity 59, Spring 2000