Be Nice to Service Workers Today

A recent survey of retail staff showed 9 in 10 faced abuse during Covid-19, often for attempting to ensure social distancing – as pubs and shops reopen, it's time to treat the workers who run them with respect.

Boris Johnson’s statement yesterday on the reopening of non-essential retail and hospitality venues spoke of ‘business owners’ and ‘everyone else’, as though pints pull themselves, and tills ring unaided. In this, Johnson neatly conforms to what Ann Larson terms the ‘Covid Explainer’ – statements that presume the reader ‘encounters service workers but does not do service work.’

Coverage focusing on the excitement surrounding the easing of lockdown has tended to disappear the low-wage worker and, as a result, the ambiguities, hopes, and worries of workers who will be returning to work have been overlooked.

Amar, aged 26, has worked as a bartender at a community pub since 2017. He told Tribune: ‘I’m itching to go back – a lot of us are. I do this job because I love the social aspect of it.’ The reopening also means a change in financial circumstances: ‘I’m excited for the extra twenty percent, plus tips. It makes a massive difference materially.’

Kate, a 23-year-old bookseller at a city-centre chain in the North West, similarly said that she was excited to go back. ‘I’ve been so desperate to see people, get out of the house, and have some routine.’

Yet for both Amar and Kate, excitement is tempered by concerns over pandemic working conditions. Kate added: ‘I’ll be back for a few days, then I’ll be exhausted and stressed at the amount of people who won’t follow social distancing or wear masks.’

In a survey of 2,700 retail workers, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers found that almost 9 in 10 were verbally abused in 2020, with 60 percent reporting threats of physical violence. Enforcing social distancing was given as the most common trigger for violence and abuse, with face coverings also frequently given as an answer.

‘When it’s just me and another girl on the shop floor, I’m much more likely to let non-mask wearing slide, and then be plagued for the rest of the day wondering if they had Covid,’ Kate says. This is an issue she fears vaccination will exacerbate, as non-mask wearers can claim to have been vaccinated.

It’s also evidence of a wider lack of concern for staff on behalf of both customers and management. ‘If I had great working conditions and felt really supported, I could do my job no problem,’ Kate says. The willingness of employers to put the health of their employees at risk, exemplified by Mike Ashley’s attempts to have Sports Direct classified as an ‘essential service’, made visible the disposability of employees to their employers; in hospitality, workers find themselves caught between enforcing compliance with social distancing while also trying to earn tips.

For younger workers, the question of safety is caught up in assumptions around age. 16-year-old Thea from South Wales works as a retail assistant at Primark. When she started her role in September, she found that customers were more respectful to older staff members. ‘They see someone like me, who’s young, and they just think that we don’t really care about Covid, or that because we’re young we don’t have any underlying health conditions,’ she says. ‘But I don’t want to put my family in danger.’

The New Normal

The converse side of this genuine fear of contagion is that it has enabled customers to reframe their casual disdain for low-wage employees as a morally righteous stance. ‘Some of the worst curtain-twitching respectability elements of “the customer is always right” have been legitimised by Covid,’ Amar says.

He knows of staff at other sites who, pre-pandemic, would eat meals on their break at the bar, so that they could jump on to help colleagues if things got busy. ‘Customers used to complain that it looked bad. With Covid, that complaint is now seen as a hygiene one.’

In their article ‘Business Always as Usual’, Alya Ansari and Mitch Hernandez write that the rhetoric of the ‘new normal’ has been used to frame exploitative workplace practices as necessitated by a pandemic state of exception, rather than a simple acceleration of preexisting poor labour conditions. This, Amar says, is felt most keenly around automaton and digitisation.

‘A lot of bars and pubs now have apps that let you to order to the table. This was prefigured before Covid by the Wetherspoons app, that allows customers to order without dealing with any humans.’ Now, with Covid-19, he notes that pubs are becoming as automated as possible. ‘People love that because it’s more efficient, but it means pubs can understaff and just about get the level of service. For actual staff, it’s horrible.’

The relationship between customers and staff has also changed in more fundamental ways. Before the January lockdown, the failure to provide care for vulnerable, elderly, and lonely people throughout the pandemic meant that retail workers had effectively become a form of outsourced care. Kate agrees that, with less social spaces open, particularly cafes, she’s faced increasing pressure to take on customers’ emotional needs. ‘This is exacerbated by the emptiness of city centres, especially when we stay open late—to 8pm—and nowhere else is open.’

As Thea points out, these changes are not felt universally across a workplace. ‘The supervisors and the managers are more relaxed,’ she says, ‘because they haven’t got to be on the shop floor.’

Other social responsibilities are also being handed over to service staff. Amar is concerned at the expectation on him to uphold ‘the measures the state has brought in to encroach into public space,’ with particular emphasis on the vaccine passport. ‘The police are now planning to patrol outside pubs, which makes me feel unsafe,’ he adds. ‘The policing of social spaces that this is likely to develop into could get quite insidious.’

Reimagining Work

In her 2011 book The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks writes that ‘When we have no memory or little imagination of an alternative to a life centred on work, there are few incentives to reflect on why we work as we do and what we might wish to do instead.’ For some hospitality and retail workers, lockdown meant a glimpse of that alternative.

Service staff often have erratic schedules, with an emphasis on ‘flexible’ working patterns. ‘When we weren’t having to go in to work shifts, I think bartenders have had a bit more time to think,’ Amar says. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have to work 50 hours a week in order to just about scrape by in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and still be talked about as though we’re unskilled.’

Kate echoes this frustration. ‘Having a really erratic schedule, where I’m on an open, then a late; having only two days in a week to do my errands, socialise, and relax – that’s a shit way of living, but it’s what we’ve always done. Now I feel that I’d like to be able to live.’

Of course, the ability to imagine something different doesn’t always translate into the ability to demand it. Over a third of the jobs lost in 2020 were in hospitality, and the Centre for Retail Research estimates 190,000 retail jobs were lost in the same year, with 83,725 of those resulting directly from the collapse of brands like Debenhams and Arcadia.

‘I’m just grateful to have a job right now,’ Kate tells me. ‘I don’t want to do anything to jeopardise that, because I need money. It feels really precarious. I don’t want to push back and then feel pushed out, so I’d rather just accept things.’

But some cases show that that doesn’t mean action is impossible. After organising a successful wildcat strike in 2018, Amar and his colleagues wondered: ‘What if we used this as a base to try and promote a culture of solidarity and trade unionism in hospitality?’ From this, they formed the South London Bartenders Network (SLBN) – a movement rooted in community unionism that goes beyond shop floor organising, and which has since seen a string of successes.

While widespread unemployment is raising new difficulties for workers who want to fight for their rights in the workplace, the power of grassroots movements show that times of crisis don’t only have to leave workers on the back foot. Conditions are worsening, and customers can be abusive – but the reality is that this year has forced the public to realise how much they rely on the work of service staff and the social sphere they facilitate.

‘The pub is now a hot commodity with limited spaces,’ Amar says. ‘It’s a useful time to leverage that power.’