This piece was written collectively by a group of retail workers who came together for that purpose. We share our own experiences in this chapter, conversations that came out of group meetings and interviews we did with other retail workers.

Overview of the sector

Retail, at the very basic level, is just the sale of goods or services. So defining a common experience across the retail sector becomes somewhat difficult. Therefore, in this chapter we will mostly focus on who we would traditionally define as retail workers: those who directly sell goods and services in shops. Whilst these are the jobs we do, it is important to recognise the retail sector is broad. Shop workers are the most visible of retail workers, but to ensure products get on shelves, they must be transported there, picked at a warehouse, shipped from their country of origin and, most importantly, made.

This is especially true with the move to online sales. One fifth of total retail sales now happen online. The move to online sales may have been accelerated by the pandemic, but it has been increasing for the last 10 years. Who we traditionally would consider a retail worker has shifted. Clothes, for example, used to require a sales person to be sold on the shop floor as well as a team of promoters and models for a campaign. Now they need a more extensive design team, PR team, social media team and army of photographers and models to keep up with fast paced production. Changes in global logistics have enabled fast fashion to produce and sell huge numbers of new designs per week. A Vice investigation found that Boohoo, a fast fashion retailer who paid their garment workers less than half the minimum wage in Leicester, uploaded an average of 116 new garments a day to their website. This issue is not only with purely online retailers, fast fashion also extends to high street retailers too.

In 2019, there were 3 million jobs in the retail sector and 310,000 retail businesses as of the 1st of January 2020. In 2021, the estimated number of sales and retail assistants was 1,075,000, down from 1.2 million. While we represent only a tiny section of these 3 million workers, we believe our experiences and those of the people we interviewed can be generalised due to the rise of chain shops and supermarkets.

The majority of retail sales happen in supermarkets. As government research explains, in 2020 retail sales in Great Britain were worth £437 billion, down 0.6% from 2019. For every pound spent in 2020:

  • 41 pence was spent in food shops – a 7% rise on 2019;
  • 9 pence was spent in clothing shops (including textiles and footwear) – a 25% fall on 2019;
  • 8 pence was spent on automotive fuel – a 25% fall on 2019;
  • 8 pence was spent in household goods shops (including electronics and furniture stores) – a 1% rise on 2019.

How are workers organising?

Union membership in the retail sector is dominated by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW). USDAW has over 400,000 members, primarily due to their commitment to partnership unionism. Instead of an organising approach, USDAW seek to make partnerships with employers to negotiate on behalf of all workers in the workplace and are actively promoted by the employers to the workers.

In January 2021, USDAW negotiated a minimum 2% increase on the base rate of pay with Morrisons, which given inflation is set to hit double figures, is a significant pay cut. USDAW’s long standing recognition agreement with Tesco is equally pathetic. The agreement prevents workers from voting on any pay deals, and instead puts them to vote in tightly controlled ‘staff forums.’ Embarrassingly, the two non-unionised supermarkets, Lidl and Aldi, have consistently paid far higher than those with USDAW recognition agreements. The ‘union premium’ seems to work in reverse in our sector.

Tesco workers who fall outside the recognition agreement have managed to strike in a distribution centre in Dagenham in 2018.1 Organised in USDAW, they demanded a 15% pay increase after a company offer of 3%. Again, in 2021, USDAW carried out strike ballots at nine Tesco depots over pay after Unite members at four other depots voted to strike. They threatened strike action between the 20th of December and Christmas Eve in rejection of a 4% pay offer. After an offer of 5.5% backdated to July 2021 and an additional 0.5% from February 2022, the strikes were suspended.

GMB, one of the largest unions in Britain, organises workers at Asda. Through a survey they found more than half of Asda workers have had to borrow money to make ends meet. Since, they have won an 8% pay rise to £10.10 per hour. It’s not clear how this was won, whether through threat of action or negotiations.

The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) have a long standing recognition agreement with Greggs. Finding information about any successes that have come from this relationship is difficult online. They have, however, supported bosses being legally required to provide food for their staff after a survey that found 40% of food workers said they had not eaten due to a lack of money. They also found one in five of workers said their household had run out of food at some point, and another fifth said they relied on food from others.

The reality is that the vast majority of retail workers, especially those who don’t work in supermarkets, are not involved in any organising at work or are not members of a trade union. The workers that are seem to be no better off, and in some cases perhaps even worse off.

Those that don’t have unions, however, have much less recourse to solving individual work issues. One worker at Waitrose told us:

I know the partnership doesn’t recognise trade unions. So it’s kind of hard to get a sense of what the issues are because there’s not a centralised union thing that’s talking about issues. So it’s kind of hard for us to get a sense of the situation across the business, but also in our branch, what people’s issues are… Everyone just says ‘speak to the manager’ if you have any issue at work, and the manager can speak to the higher-ups if it’s a bigger problem than they can resolve.

Our own experience


The retail working group of this project is mostly made up of shop workers. We are on the whole very underpaid. It’s common for workers to get the minimum wage, which for 16 and 17 year old workers is only £4.81 per hour, up to £9.50 for those of us over 22 years old.

It is no exaggeration to say that low pay in the retail sector drives in work poverty in Britain. An USDAW survey of over 5,500 members in 2022 found that: * 1 in 4 are missing meals every month to be able to pay their bills, this has increased from 1 in 20 last year. * Petrol prices and travel costs impact the ability to get to work for nearly 50% of respondents. * 7 in 10 have relied on insecure borrowing and 60% of these are struggling with repayments. * Nearly three-quarters report their mental health is being impacted as a result of financial worries.

One member of our group worked in a skincare shop in London who prided themselves on paying £11 per hour, and it was the consensus of the seasoned retail workers there that £11 was a really good wage for the industry. Despite that, living on this wage in London was really difficult.

Similarly, retail workers are often fed the line that they are central to the public’s perception of these companies, so are expected to take certain attitudes to their employers and the job they do. As one interviewee, working for an ‘upmarket’ supermarket chain told us:

The attitude is very much ‘don’t say anything against the company!’ There’s an attitude amongst most workers – don’t be ungrateful to the company, don’t have a negative attitude. Even though we didn’t get bonuses this year, no one wants to complain as they assume we will next year.

While the wage created this in work poverty problem, the zero hours contract we were on made it even more untenable. Our contracts seemed like they guaranteed us a certain number of hours per week but when hours disappear after the busy Christmas period, pay also dwindles. Our group and the workers we interviewed were pretty evenly split between working full-time, part-time and on zero hours contracts. We found that shops tended to have a core few on full-time permanent contracts and then a wider pool of workers on part-time and zero hours contracts.

For the wider pool of workers on precarious contracts, hours can go up and down depending on the week. This creates a huge amount of anxiety, especially with the knowledge that bills are only going up at the moment and in anticipation that there will be less customers coming into shops.

Other rights, like holiday pay and sick pay, were across the board set at the legal minimum from everyone we spoke to and interviewed. One issue that was particularly highlighted in our interviews and group discussions was the inability to take holiday. At one retailer, it was made so purposely difficult to find out how much holiday you had and how you could book it that most sales assistants hardly took any of their allowance. At another shop, workers complained that their manager would often refuse holiday requests, not giving a reason why. They made a Whatsapp group among themselves and would ask their coworkers if anyone else was off the week they wanted as holiday. When they heard back ‘no’, they would present that to the manager so they couldn’t refuse their request.

Covid-19 really highlighted how inadequate statutory sick pay really was for us (£99.35 a week). Many members of our group caught Covid-19 and were unable to return to work for 10 days. On top of feeling pretty unwell, in most cases this almost halved our monthly salaries. One shop worker we interviewed was told not to come to work because their partner was isolating at home with Covid-19, but they never caught it. They weren’t able to get statutory sick pay because they weren’t sick and they weren’t able to get the local government grant for low paid workers who were isolating because they couldn’t show a positive test. Especially around the Christmas period, this loss of income was devastating.

Our experience of the pandemic was, for the most part, pretty split. Those of us who worked in supermarkets had a really tough time, worked in difficult conditions, and had to go to work when everyone else was at home. Those of us who worked other retail jobs were on furlough. Lockdowns were spent reading, doing exercise, playing video games, and enjoying time not working. When retail shops reopened, measures to limit the number of customers in the shop at once made our lives quite a lot easier. Being able to tell customers they had to wait outside was quite satisfying, whereas normally everyone would rush in at once asking a million things of you.

The battle to get customers to wear masks, however, created an additional pressure that many of us just gave up on. Some customers were angry if they were asked to wear a mask, some customers were angry if the mandate wasn’t enforced enough. It was an impossible situation. Equally, wearing a mask whilst being rushed off your feet wasn’t easy either. Although lots of us did enjoy being able to not wear makeup and not have to smile constantly.

The work

On the whole, the work of shop workers is pretty similar. We all found commonalities in stock replenishment, using a till, dealing with customer queries, and cleaning.

While the group member who worked in the skincare shop was paid slightly more, the tasks expected of them were more intense. The shop was less busy than the average high street fashion retailer, but shop assistants were expected to also be skincare ‘consultants’. Each customer was invited to a sink where they were ‘prescribed’ a skincare routine after a consultation. Assistants had to demonstrate this full routine on their hands, remembering and noting the advantages of all the products you were recommending. This practice was only done when the manager was on the shop floor and absolutely hated by all consultants. On top of this, consultants were expected to clean the whole shop, attend many training sessions on skincare, and take on financial responsibilities that managers would usually have. Especially during Covid-19, ‘hand demonstrations’ of products and offering tea to customers were the most dreaded parts of the job. Luckily, due to the risk of infection, workers were told not to do these for a large chunk of the last three years.

We also found common ground when talking about coworkers. It’s possible to go from not knowing someone to knowing every intimate detail of their life in an afternoon when working on a quiet shop floor or at a till together. Many friendships are also formed in opposition to bad managers. Similar to any work, a bad manager can make your life hell.

One member of the group had just left a fashion shop that was made so toxic by a bad manager. The manager was very keen to have all the workers on contracts that guaranteed a low number of hours to keep them ‘flexible’, as well as micromanaging workers, and dragging them through on the job training sessions.

Similarly, another group member highlighted how routinely disrespected we are as shop workers by our bosses and customers. We all had experienced being treated like children and talked down to by our managers. This was even more heightened from any staff that came from ‘head office’. The patronising cheerleading of the people who actually sold the stuff made us feel awful.

The use of technology in retail now just exacerbates the infantilisation. Apps for rotas and for clocking in and out are commonplace now. They track your location to make sure you aren’t clocking once you’ve already left. They track your training progress and often give you tasks as well. One interviewee from a restaurant even had to send the manager a selfie of them in a clean shop at the end of every shift.

Talking to customers can be one of the best things about the job. Many of us thought that if the job was better paid and given more respect it would be a really good job to have for life. We mostly don’t want to work office jobs, the thought of sitting in front of the computer all day sounds terrible.

Fighting back

Our efforts to fight back were mostly limited to slacking off. The pressure to be bubbly and personable like a good salesperson every shift is just unrealistic. When we all started working in retail this was easy, but over time we became despondent.

Solidarity between coworkers was taking turns to work the shop floor while the other hid in the bathroom on their phone. Others spoke of giving each other longer lunch breaks, meaning you were working harder to cover for them in exchange for a longer lunch for yourself. For those of us more closely watched by managers, we shaved time off shifts by leaving a few minutes early or staying out slightly longer on breaks.

A major point of contention was over having our phones on the shop floor. We each could list our favourite spots to hide our phones behind the tills or the outfits we would wear to conceal our phones in our pockets. Some managers would be on the prowl looking for signs you had your phone on you. Whereas, others were just as addicted to their phones and wanted to bend the rules too.

‘Five finger discounting’ was also noted as being prevalent in the industry by a number of people. One group member spoke about how during their time working in a shop, the entire staff of the shop across the road got sacked. It turned out they had been sacked because they had been caught stealing thousands of pounds worth of greeting cards over a number of months, which they had been selling online to add an extra ‘bonus’ to their meagre wages. Another worker spoke of how working in retail, despite the low-wages and poor conditions, did mean they never had to buy a roll of toilet paper, as there was abundance that could be ‘borrowed’ from the shop. While these actions in some cases, such as the former, were easily repressed by the bosses by simply (and legally) sacking those involved, these actions do represent a confidence and desire to resist work by workers.

Shops often give discounts to employees. Often in supermarkets they offer a minimal family discount too. In other shops, where they don’t extend the discount to family members, employees have to sneakily give their discount to friends and family. Some of us have run extensive operations of receiving orders and taking money for discounted clothes and products for wide networks of friends. Although this allows us to feel like we are ‘gaming the system’, we can’t shake the feeling that we are just putting more money back into the company.

Challenges or opportunities?

The clear challenge is the current lack of organising happening and the lack of effective unions doing any organising.

Our interviewees identified a number of issues they felt were particularly preventative of organising efforts. One restaurant worker noted that, given the precarious status of many of his co-workers, it was hard to talk to them about the possibilities of organising:

It’s hard to say to other workers ‘you’re being exploited’ and say that they’re in a bad position, so it’s hard to see if they would also want to get organised. Many people are just willing to let things slide as it’s a good workplace environment in general, so I’m just one person being grumbly. It will take some time to suss out other people’s experiences and positions on organising, and the fracture lines at work.

Similarly, they identified that outside of the larger chains, it was harder to get in touch with union organisers:

I’ve asked around but never heard of anyone really being active in the unions; I’ve heard about it in big chains but never for smaller restaurants.

Our study has engaged above all with front-of-house retail workers. However, an important step for the political organisation of our sector would be to work out how organising between these kinds of staff could relate to the whole network of struggles waged by logistics, manufacturing, and tech workers who make retail work possible in the first place. In the coming months we hope to make these links and further the inquiry we have started here.


Notes from Below (@NotesFrom_Below)

The Editorial collective of Notes from Below.