Coronavirus has really separated the wheat from the chaff when it comes to companies treating workers fairly. With most of us stuck indoors, and a nationwide lockdown forcing non-essential shops and restaurants to close, many companies are facing an unprecedented drop in sales. Although some government support has been offered – such as covering up to 80 percent of employees' pay – many on zero-hour contracts have no support from the government, meaning employers will need to pay these employees while they can’t work or else their income will stop.
Unfortunately, we exist under this little thing called capitalism, where profit margins are more important than making sure the staff can eat and pay their rent. Companies like Virgin Atlantic, owned by billionaire Richard Brandson, have called for a bailout from the government, while simultaneously asking staff to take unpaid leave. Branson himself is worth around $4 billion.
Now this is a pretty dick move from Virgin Atlantic, and may influence whether you use them to fly again once this is all over. In fact, once we return to normal, non-pandemic times, it may be useful to know which companies you should support and which ones you should swerve. Enter: this viral spreadsheet of UK businesses that collates information on how they’ve treated staff during the outbreak.
“I was just furious,” says Catherine Oliver, the PhD student who set up the "UK Businesses Coronavirus Response for Workers" spreadsheet. “I'm a social scientist, I'm a geographer, so I think myself and lots of other social scientists could see that the pandemic is a health issue, a public health issues, but is [also] revealing the deep inequalities in society that we've known for a long time.”
The spreadsheet, which was created on March 19th, was intended to just be something smaller Oliver shared with friends. It began to gain traction on Twitter about a week and a half ago, and Oliver's tweet sharing the spreadsheet now has over 350 retweets and has been liked almost 600 times.
“The spreadsheet was a way to track that and to hold accountable who is really being shitty,” she tells me over the phone, “so everyone can access, see and collect these stories because a lot of these stories are not only from research but from lots of workers.”
Split into ten sections (name of company, workers' testimonials, etc.), the crowdsourced spreadsheet lists over 200 companies and details how they’ve behaved during the outbreak, including whether they’ll pay staff sick pay or whether they're still expecting staff to come to work. Vue Cinemas, for instance, is in green – meaning good – with a note from “an employee” saying that workers will be paid their average weekly hours for three months. Vue Cinemas confirmed to VICE that it would be paying its staff "as normal".
At the time of publication, Wetherspoons was blacklisted in red – initially for not closing during the outbreak, and later for telling workers they would not be paid between the point the chain was forced to shut down by the government and until the government's 80 percent pay cover was implemented. Wetherspoons declined to comment for this piece, but it did announce it would be paying staff for their last week of workearlier than previously stated.
There are obvious limitations to a crowdsourced spreadsheet where anyone can submit info through a google sheet that seeks to define if a company are “good” or “bad”, when the situation may be far more complex. Its open-source nature has its restrictions: while most of the information has sources listed, some are just testimonials from workers with no verification.
Oliver tells me she's aware the spreadsheet could veer into inaccurate information. "I’ve been trying to verify as far as possible, but I am sure there are still errors," she tells me. "It’s not a perfect system but a place to collectively keep track and because everyone can see all the info [and] can make their own judgements."
With news changing quickly, for example, some information is also now out of date. Sandwich chain Pret is listed in red, with a note to say that the company intends to cut wages and hours for workers. However, when we reached out the Pret, it told us that it had chosen to reverse this decision.
“We have decided to continue to pay all our UK employees 100 percent of their normal hours and pay, reversing our previously proposed reduction in hours,” a spokesperson for the company told us. “This decision follows the government’s announcement on Friday that it will pay a percentage of wages due to the coronavirus impact.
“This allows us to keep our teams safe at home and ensure they are paid 100 percent of their normal hours throughout March and April, despite the fact that our UK shops are not currently open.”
Even if you take the list with a pinch of salt, Oliver believes that the list can help consumers decide where to spend their money. “On the one hand, boycotting has been taken away from us who are workers, who are precarious,” she says, “but I think for a lot of people – the more privileged – they can still spend money, so a boycott in that sense can work already.”
Even without a boycott, Oliver adds, brand damage is a powerful tool until we have a better legal system that protects workers. “What we can be doing is calling out these companies,” she says. “It's not only companies themselves. It's the whole system. It’s not one individual thing of how companies are behaving, but actually this has been going on anyway – it's just taken this pandemic to reveal it.”