Working lives: supermarkets and poverty wages

P, a supermarket worker, discusses their experiences at work:

For a total of around 9 years I’ve worked in 3 of the of the ‘Big 4’ supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s. The disparity between those at top of these companies, and the majority of the people they employ is huge. CEOs receive seven figure salaries while most staff are struggling to get by on wages a few pence above the minimum wage. The majority of the lowest paid workers are forced to claim Working Tax Credits and housing benefit to get by.

Hundreds of thousands of workers at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrison’s are not paid the “living wage” according to a 2012 Fair Pay Network report. A Tesco spokesperson might be able boast that their “staff receive a higher level of basic pay than any other supermarket, without exception” but in the context of the poverty wages across the sector this means even at the high end of the scale you can only expect the princely sum of just under £7.00 per hour.

The supermarkets like to claim that they generously offer performance related bonuses and store discount cards on top of basic salaries. None of this has a real impact on the lives of workers. During my time working in supermarkets I’ve seen the standards of living of those employed by them get worse every year.

The ‘Big 4’ supermarkets in the UK currently have just over 75% of the market share, making around £6 billion profit in 2012. In stark contrast to the 900,000 workers employed by them, the kingpins of these giants are handsomely rewarded. Justin King, the CEO of Sainsbury’s, receives £3.2 million a year; Philip Clarke of Tesco, £6.9 million; Dalton Philips, of Morrisons, £4 million.

Wages are only part of the story. Where I currently work, longer serving members of staff tell me that in the last 10 years staff levels have halved. “Doing more with less” is what the chains might urge, but what that means for those working for them is an unrelenting pressure to meet impossible targets and genuine bullying.

Management will target those considered ‘soft’ to ‘finish their aisle’ after their shift ends. They play on people’s fear of losing their job by telling them ‘we have hundreds of people ready to replace you’ in front of the whole store. If you have the temerity to be sick in the workplace for more than a tiny percentage of your contracted hours, you will be formally disciplined, even if that sickness is directly from an accident at work.

Everyone knows the work is killing us. Chronic back pain, knackered knees and high stress are commonplace. Everyone knows that we’re being screwed by the bosses, but there is a level of benign acceptance: ‘What can we do?’, ‘They have us over a barrel’. But do they really?

Last year across the USA, there were 100 strikes by fast food workers demanding a living wage. The campaign attracted widespread public support and the backing of 60 members of Congress. Action in the States shows the possibilities there are for organising in workplaces like supermarkets.

Although the level of union membership in supermarkets is low, USDAW does have a membership of almost 500,000, and has seen it grow by 17% in the last five years. It is the 4th largest and fastest growing Union in the UK. This shows there is a desire for workers solidarity among shop workers. Members need to push their reps and local branches to be more radical. We need to recruit, and build a rank and file movement that can fight back.

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