The value of labour: Covid and the case of British supermarkets

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


The aim of this paper is to analyse the perceived shift in value attributed to supermarket work during the Coronavirus pandemic. Retail work has a history of being systematically undervalued both due to gendered notions of skill (Cockburn 1983) and the presentation of retail work as a new generic form of feminised mass employment (Grugulis and Bozkurt 2011). Consequently, successive governments have largely excluded the sector from any sort of industrial strategy (Wallace-Stephens and Lockey 2019), with the result that employers have been left to exploit the availability of a low-cost, highly flexible workforce in a way which reflects the nominal value that they attribute to this type of work. The pandemic largely overshadowed much of this in the context of food retailing, due to the essential service these workers provided throughout the crisis. Those continuing to ‘feed the nation’ were applauded for their work, inciting some to suggest that this shift in narrative signalled a new beginning for retail workers. However, others continued to question whether this was enough to sufficiently alter the everyday lived experiences of those working within key industries, ultimately prompting this research and others like it (see Policy@Manchester series).

This paper draws on an in-depth newspaper analysis to assess the divergence between the idealised narrative of frontline workers within the media and other forums during the Coronavirus pandemic. Quotes from senior retail figures and government officials saturated news reports, signposting both their appreciation of the ‘value’ of the work undertaken by food retail employees and the protective safety measures which they had implemented within stores and warehouses. However, there was little evidence to indicate a shift of any real significance on the part of employers, nor the government, in terms of pay and security commitments made to staff which extended beyond the immediate demands of the crisis (e.g. long-term pay increases, paid childcare leave, extension of short hours/temporary roles). In addition to this, the weekly ‘clap for key workers’ alluded to a newfound respect for those working throughout the crisis, yet many felt as though this was largely directed towards healthcare professionals rather than others working ‘on the front line’ often for less pay and with restricted access to PPE. This feeling was further compounded by a spike in instances of abusive behaviour towards food retail workers, leaving little to show for from the fortnightly applause.

This paper aims to demonstrate how externally-facing displays of respect are not supported by the substantive actions required to prompt the re-valuing of work carried out by essential retail employees – the reality was that little actually changed, in stark contrast to the seismic shift reported in the press. This will be explored using research which analyses the hollowness in the approach taken by employers, government and the general public, drawing out the implications for both the quality of work which remains within the sector and the value which is attributed to it.

Key words: Retail work, value, Covid-19, qualitative research, keyworkers, supermarkets
May 2021

Event (Conference)

TitleInternational Labour Process Conference
Period20/05/21 → …