Iain Dalton, Usdaw Broad Left chair (personal capacity)
Over the last few months, retail has been vying with schools for the top spot for Covid-19 outbreaks. Now schools are rightly shut to many students, to try to stop the spread of the virus. This shines a spotlight on the retailers that remain open where conditions are far more lax than was the case during the first lockdown.
Already this year, there have been a number of high-profile outbreaks of Covid in Tesco stores. Tragically, two workers in a store in Greenock, Scotland died as a result of an outbreak there. A store in Bridgend, south Wales has had 40 confirmed cases since Christmas, with 140 workers isolating at one point. There have also been outbreaks at a Cardiff Tesco Extra store and the distribution centre at Magor, south Wales. There are numerous other reports in local newspapers of other outbreaks.
Retail and distribution workers will be asking what their unions are doing to protect them. In a recent Usdaw retail union press release, a series of measures are put forward, which we would support. These include observance of two-metre social distancing; one-way systems; retail workers being among those with priority for receiving the vaccine; doorstep-only deliveries of shopping; trained security staff overseeing entry and exit from stores; and compliance with mask wearing.
We would argue that given the increased transmission of the new variant these measures should go further. Restocking of shelves, for example, should be done when aisles or stores are closed in order to protect staff. Also, current capacity limits, which seem to be based on one-metre-plus distancing in stores without any shelves, should be vastly reduced.
Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis has pointed out many of these safety measures were agreed with the retail bosses during the first lockdown. But a key sentence follows this in the press release, which points to the problem of why they are not being implemented. He says: “Where safety measures are agreed, retailers need to make sure that they are being followed consistently, in every store.”
While measures may be agreed at the level of the bosses’ organisations like the British Retail Consortium, or individual companies, it is far from automatic they will filter down to store level, given the pressures on store managers to maintain sales volumes in order to reap company profits.
The only guarantee of safety measures being implemented is confident union membership, and reps within stores.
Yet a number of Usdaw reps have reported that when they have become aware of these issues cropping up in multiple stores, they have still been forced to attempt to deal with them at store level, instead of the union taking them up collectively with management.
Retail workers must take a leaf out of the tremendous action by education workers. The National Education Union (NEU) and then Unison union members, invoked their rights under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, in a collective fashion. Section 44 gives workers the individual right to withdraw from a workplace where they believe they face “serious or imminent danger”.
We urgently need the Usdaw leadership to bring members together, using technology such as Zoom, like the NEU successfully did, to hammer out a strategy of how the union’s rank-and-file membership can be mobilised to force the retail bosses to take our safety seriously.
As well as discussing how Section 44 could be used in the retail context, other options could be explored, such as indicative ballots of members over the possibility of taking strike action.