Retail work is often not considered very taxing, nor is it regarded as an area in which employee rights are an urgent issue. Such workers, after all, aren’t toiling in the hot sun of the Central Valley, lugging heavy cleaning kits through hotels, or performing domestic work in the homes of abusive employers. Yet, this doesn’t mean that retail workers don’t face their own issues, or that these issues aren’t important, an issue driven home last November when Wal*Mart workers struck for better conditions and highlighted poor labour practices at their employer. In the fight for labour rights, retail workers have a place too, working in solidarity alongside other workers as well as fighting for their own improved working conditions.
Pay for retail workers is often at or close to minimum wage, with scant benefits. In companies that offer benefits, employees may be kept at half-time status to avoid paying them, and the employee share of contributions can be high. The net effect can be to project an image that a company is worker-friendly, while not actually offering the needed support to employees. Sneaky tactics like on-call scheduling can also be used by employers to marginalise their staff even further; imagine not knowing whether you’re going to work until the day of, but still having to block out your schedule in case your employer calls for you. That’s reality for some people working in retail.
Once you’re actually at work, retail isn’t necessarily a walk in the park, though the physical and emotional demands are very different from other industries. People in retail typically remain on their feet for a duration of an eight hour shift, often without foot and back support to help them stand more comfortably, which means they can be prone to injuries in their legs and lower backs. They can also be at risk of repetitive stress injuries caused by bending, lifting, and operating registers and other equipment; in the long term, retail can be extremely hard on your body, and like many other workers, it’s not likely you have a retirement plan, paid sick days, and other benefits to rely upon when your body starts to fail you.
Not to mention that many retail workers are cheated out of breaks; it’s not uncommon for people to be urged to stay on a register or continue walking the floor until there’s ‘time’ to take a break, except that ‘time’ never actually arrives. These workers are not just being deprived of wages by being forced to work through breaks without compensation. They’re also not being given opportunities to relieve stresses of the work environment, including not just physical discomfort caused by prolonged standing, but also the emotional stress of dealing with customers, not all of whom are kind and gentle members of the public.
Customer interactions in retail may be a bit of a running joke, but they’re also pretty serious business, especially for people who work at large chains and high-volume stores. Customers in these settings typically expect very rapid service with no mistakes, and can become abusive when problems develop, whether a store is out of a given item and an associate can’t help, or something goes wrong at the counter, requiring more time to ring someone up and finish a transaction. Almost every retail worker can narrate at least one tale of being subjected to a tirade from a customer, often for something the worker had no control over, and this kind of treatment can become grinding when it happens on a nearly daily basis, especially when accompanied with chipper reminders that ‘the customer is always right.’
Leave policies in retail are typically minimal, which can be a problem for people who need time to deal with illnesses, caregiving needs, new babies, and other major life events. While it may not be legal to discriminate against people who require leaves for certain reasons, like having a child, that doesn’t mean employers won’t discriminate. They will, of course, find a way to justify their activities so they don’t appear to be violating the law, but that’s not much comfort to the employee who loses a job while on leave or gets back to work only to discover an utterly bizarre schedule with shifts at odd hours or not enough shifts to actually survive.
This work is not cushy, it’s not easy, and it’s not without serious employee abuses, particularly when it comes to large corporations. Solidarity requires incorporating retail workers into the fight for better labour protections, and recognising their critical role in society. Just as farmworkers, domestic workers, miners, manufacturing personnel, and so many other workers provide a needed service to society, so do retail workers, and they deserve dignity and respect in the workplace along with everyone else.
What does a better world look like for people working in retail? Fair pay, for starters; many people can’t afford to buy the products their very own employers sell. An actual break schedule, along with paid sick days and appropriate measures for vacations as well as leaves necessitated by medical or other life issues. Access to benefits with a more reasonable employee contribution, including health and retirement funds. And the right to be treated with dignity and respect by supervisors and customers alike, which includes the right to refuse service to people on the grounds of inappropriate behaviour. Because no one, no matter how much they earn, should be forced to stand by for abusive torrents of foul language for events that are utterly beyond their control; and it’s telling that while this behaviour would shock people if it was directed at someone like a doctor, it’s evidently just fine for the person who sells your shoes.