My struggle: Two years of double standards on the shop floor

Website - 7 November 2005

I’ve taken some time off from my meagre chores of replenishing the bacon section and slapping half price stickers on oranges to scribble some notes on the reverse side of some advertising for ‘Jumbo Salted Peanuts’. People around me are contently placing own-brand beans on shelves and mopping up wine spills while the 80s-biased radio is humming Nik Kershaw’s ‘Wouldn’t it be good’ for the thirteenth time over the Co-op airwaves. But if you don’t like new wave music, it gets much worse here.

I applied for a job at Co-op when it was a Safeway store just over two years ago. I over-eagerly wrote my details on an application form that bore the shiny, plastic grins of two ‘workers’, handed my form in and then waited. Within a fortnight I was jogging around with milk dollies in a pathetic effort to please my superiors, but within a few months, my enthusiasm was fading like the colour of my lime green uniform. I’d befriended a few other young people in my position – students who had been working just a few months. One of them jokingly remarked: “I’ve got amnesia. I can’t remember why I applied here.”

Working at my local supermarket has also completely reversed some of my economic views. In two years, I’ve gone from being a ‘free-market freak’ – babbling about efficiency and the importance of profit – to a soft Marxist. My political views have also been dragged over to the left and I now have a problem with authority.

So why did things change? Let me explain. Three people call the shots at my work – the managers. Just below them in the hierarchy are the supervisors – the people in charge of particular departments. Finally, there’s me and the rest of the proletariat, or “the bottom of the barrel” as we are described by the Human Resources Manager. We unload the goods that are delivered from the depot, fill shelves with it and then go home, with a few added menial tasks sandwiched in between. The next day we do the same, starting as early as 7am, finishing as late as midnight. If we finish the job before the end of our shift, we do someone else’s job until we are scheduled to finish. We are granted three (unpaid) breaks per day for a nine-hour shift, and I earn around £170 for a 37-hour week.

And the unwritten rules… we cannot chat – to neither workmates nor friends; we are picked up on things like “working with one hand”; people from the same department cannot take simultaneous breaks; we cannot take more than our allotted breaks; we cannot use mobile phones on the shop floor; we cannot chew on gum; we cannot work together – to name a few.

And here’s the day of a manager: they turn up to work no earlier than 9 o’clock, hold a meeting with supervisors, tally up their profits and costs (incidentally as a store we do quite well). They have no allotted breaks – but this works to their advantage as they are not deducted pay from the breaks they do take (as their breaks are unrecorded). One of my workmates spotted one manager take eighteen breaks in one morning. At around 2pm, they begin filling shelves like the rest of us. They always work in twos (what rule book?) whilst they chomp on Wrigleys (rule book…) and check their mobiles. The manager is paid a fixed wage of £3,000 per month and works less than I do.

For people like me, it is easy to spot inequality, double standards and hypocrisy – we are earning disposable income, not a living. But for people who have made a career out of stacking cheese, it is a lot easier to ignore the issue. A woman I work with has been working here for fourteen years – whenever I raise a conversation about this she ponders me for a moment, before shrugging and sighing “I know…” she continues to open boxes of tomato juice while the managers pocket the receipts upstairs.

The people whose careers are made from this place divide into two groups. In group one are the people who ignore these issues and simply want to earn their living, when in group two are those who view the inequality as something they can skew to their own advantage. Patronage has been an active hobby among the staff at Co-op – one woman who supervises her workers on the Delicatessen is given huge amounts of time off work (to share with the managers) in return for her maintenance of the double standards. Other manager cronies call their customer friends over to have a chat, but are quick to separate us from a casual chat, which we are not entitled to.

In a very real sense, they are stamping out the very things that make mundane jobs bearable. A chat with a colleague, a sneaky fag break – they’re fast becoming rights confined to the dustbin of history. And so now we are faced with the very cold ambiance of the smoking room – the break which a workmate and I share with a couple of managers. “No one talks. There is no morale here. To them we are just human resources, not people,” my friend comments as the two managers vacate the scene, chuckling.

Recently, I found myself voicing these concerns to someone above my level for the very first time. I’d been taking a break, defiantly, with a friend (who was a member of a different department) – we were heading back to work when two managers (the only two working that day) objected to us being on our breaks at the same time. I was about to utter “practice what you preach” but instead, like on so many occasions, I spoke to someone else. My Human Resource Manager listened closely. The essence of his argument was based around maintaining and increasing profits, and the basis of mine was the concept of morale, and how it would improve productivity if we gain more respect. At the end of my “rant” he said: “Why have you not told any of the managers about this?” I replied, “I’m a coward and I want to keep my job.” “Well they definitely think it’s a case of you versus them. Do you want me to mention it?” he said. “That would be nice,” I replied.

But why on earth would they listen? In December last year, I wrote a letter that highlighted my concerns with the large amounts of good food we throw away – I was motivated by the terrible scenes of starvation in the Boxing Day tsunami aftermath. I proposed that we try to distribute the food over there somehow, or at least to the British homeless, rather than have it burnt like we currently do. Indeed, one manager did speak to me about this – only to tell me “it’s more efficient this way” before shredding my letter.

I’ve since found comfort by attempting to organise a workers’ revolution, or a coup. The idea is very much pretend – my workmates and I joke about using trolleys as makeshift trenches and pork pies as weapons. But, if I’m honest, I’d love to fly the red flag over this place.