Panic shopping at a Tesco supermarket in south London ahead of the coronavirus lockdown. Photo: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo
There are two hours left until the store closes and the place is a mess. A carton of milk has burst, forming a puddle on the floor. Small scraps of cardboard litter the aisles. A ruptured bag of Doritos peeks out from underneath a shelf, leaving a trail of crumbs in its path. Usually when overstretched and understaffed, we’d selfishly kick rubbish under the shelves, knowing the cleaners would sort it out in the morning.
That was until Tesco announced it’d be sacking its contracted cleaners from almost 2,000 Express and Metro stores in the middle of a pandemic. As of the 24th August, cleaning checkouts, toilets, staff rooms and car parks became the responsibility of members of staff like me, rather than the professional cleaners we’d usually see for a few hours each day.The move came as a surprise given Tesco has reported record-breaking sales during lockdown, with sales up 8.7 percent in the three months to 30th May. The outgoing CEO, Dave Lewis, took home £6.4 million this year and shareholders benefited from a £635 million dividend this spring. Tesco also accepted the government’s emergency coronavirus tax break worth £585 million.In a statement, Tesco say that the cleanliness of its stores has “never been more important” and that following an in-store trial, more consistent standards of cleanliness could be achieved by getting shop workers to clean.However, it’s been weeks since the cleaners were let go and in my store, we’re already struggling to get everything done.In large Tesco stores, it’s common for each member of staff to have one primary role such as checkout assistant or bakery manager. In Metro and Express stores, you do a bit of everything. In the space of a shift you might unload deliveries, fill shelves and serve customers – all while wearing a mask, keeping your distance and getting shouted at by customers for letting people in without a face covering.
Customer assistant Louise*, 35, says the changes have been “a kick in the teeth” after everything supermarket workers have been through during the pandemic.“After all the panic buyers and abusive customers, head office thanked us for everything we’ve done,” she says. “But then they turn around and insist we do the cleaners’ jobs too.”In October, Tesco customer assistants will see their hourly pay increase from £9 an hour to £9.30 an hour, as part of the company’s 2019 Pay Review which promised to gradually increase workers’ pay by 10.45 percnt over a period of two years.I ask Louise if the pay rise will make up for the extra responsibilities. She says: “When I first heard about the pay rise I was happy, but now they’re piling on these extra jobs it doesn’t feel like much.”Louise is just one of thousands of workers angry about the situation. A petition created to encourage a U-turn has amassed more than 38,000 signatures. Tesco say that workers will be provided with training and overtime so they’re able to complete their new tasks effectively. But according to shift leader Adam*, the decision has added to the mounting pressure workers like himself already face.He says: “Each shift is physically demanding and often emotionally draining. Shift leaders do everything customer assistants do and we have to manage them too. I have so many targets to meet and the pay isn’t great.” Adam is paid £10.86 an hour.
He adds: “When I go home I’m still thinking about all the things that could have been done differently and how to make things better but when I’m back in the shop it’s often difficult to deliver what was expected – and that’s before we had to clean.”Adam emphasises that he wouldn’t mind cleaning if workers were given enough time, adding: “Tesco say they’ve given extra hours in our budget for this, but that’s not the case in my store.”Adam’s thoughts are echoed by several of my colleagues. It’s not that we think cleaning is beneath us. For many of us, our anger stems from the expectation that we should take on as many responsibilities as Tesco will throw at us with no reward. The day after the changes were made, a colleague of mine said she wouldn’t be doing any cleaning at all. This decision has been met with respect from some members of staff but criticism from others. I ask Adam how he’d feel if a member of his team refused to clean. He says: “I get where they’re coming from and won’t force people to do it. It’s making things harder for the rest of us though, because it means we have even more to do.”I contacted the shop workers’ trade union Usdaw, to find out what will happen to workers who protest taking on the extra responsibilities.National Officer Pauline Foulkes says: “Usdaw has been clear from the outset that no Tesco colleague should be compelled to take on additional cleaning duties that were previously done by the contractor and will support members who object to this proposed change to their job role.
She adds: “Tesco have confirmed that no colleague will be forced to take on additional cleaning duties if they don’t want to.”When I tell Louise that technically, she can refuse to take part, she says: “I’ll still do it because what would happen if we all refused? The store would be disgusting.”When talking to my colleagues about the changes, gratitude for at least having a job during the pandemic is common. One colleague points out that even now, there are much worse places to work.When you look at the corporate heroes and villains of the pandemic, few would have placed Tesco alongside the baddies. In April, 50,000 employees were off sick on full pay, and those who were pregnant, vulnerable, or over 70 were given 12 weeks paid leave. The supermarket also rewarded hourly workers in stores and distribution centres a 10 percent bonus for time worked in April and May.And yet it’s hard not to feel like the decision to make cleaning the responsibility of shop workers takes advantage of the pandemic. Workers can’t quit in protest because it’s hard to find somewhere else to go. With hundreds of job seekers applying for one vacancy, it’s never been easier for supermarkets to fill these roles. Louise adds: “If we refuse to clean, maybe we’ll all get made redundant and they’ll replace us with people who’ve been made redundant from other companies. I suppose I should just be glad I’m working at all.”
A few weeks ago I overheard an older member of staff tell a customer: “We’re all like a family here.” Overlooking the negative connotations of how the phrase sometimes indicates an unhealthy workplace dynamic, I do think there’s often a close-knit atmosphere in small stores like mine. But if we’re all forced to clean and certain members of staff refuse, it’s just a matter of time before we start to feel more like resentful housemates, pointing the finger at one another for not cleaning the kitchen rather than challenging those at the top who make conditions like this necessary.In a statement, Tesco said: “Currently we use third-party suppliers for cleaning. Following a successful trial, we have found that giving our stores more ownership and control over their cleaning results in better and more consistent standards. We will now roll this out to all our Express stores and convenience Metro stores.”Although the changes might be cost-effective, it doesn't seem fair to place extra burdens on supermarket workers at a time when we're already facing so many challenges. People like me have worked hard to ensure people across the UK have been able to access food and supplies throughout the pandemic. This isn't how we should be treated.*Name has been changed