Usdaw: Why Labour’s new jobs campaign is so important to retail workers

Paddy Lillis

As the tragic human cost of the coronavirus pandemic continues to mount, we face an economic challenge that has the potential to rip the heart out of our communities and destroy the livelihoods of millions of people across the country. So far, the government has failed to recognise the scale of the challenge or take decisive action to protect the economy and people’s jobs.

In his summer statement, the Chancellor announced billions of pounds in support for businesses. But in too many cases, effective existing measures were being scrapped and new, expensive measures were so poorly targeted that they will likely fail to save jobs and protect businesses. Anneliese Dodds was absolutely right to call for a targeted, sectoral approach in her response.

Usdaw represents hundreds of thousands of members across retail, distribution and manufacturing. Whilst many retail workers have continued to work throughout the pandemic, keeping food on the shelves and serving their communities, for many others, especially on our at-risk high streets, the support initially available from the government was a lifeline, protecting their incomes and the viability of the businesses they work for.

To rip away that support prematurely will push many businesses over a cliff edge and put thousands of jobs at risk. Why protect jobs through the early stages of the pandemic, just to sacrifice them now? This is why Labour’s campaign on jobs is so welcome. The Labour Party must hold the government to account for its failure on jobs and the economy.

As a sector, retail was struggling even before the pandemic, and Usdaw has long been calling for the government to take meaningful action to support the sector. If any other sector of our economy was facing the scale of job losses that we see in retail, there would be swift government intervention. We have already seen over 24,000 retail jobs lost this year and reports suggest that around 250,000 high street jobs are at risk.

Usdaw is calling for two things: a Retail Recovery Plan and a New Deal for Workers. The two go hand in hand, and we need to deliver them both in order to safeguard and create jobs and to make sure that those jobs provide a proper livelihood and quality of life. If this pandemic has shown anything, it’s that for too long we have all failed to recognise the true essential workers in our communities.

To support the retail sector, we need government action on:

  • A fundamental rebalancing between bricks and mortar and online retail. Business rates, rents, leases, and tax loopholes mean that our high streets and other local bricks and mortar stores struggle to compete with online retail. We need to recognise the value of our high streets and level the playing field. 
  • Funding for local authorities. Local authorities need to have the funding available to support their local economies. The connection between local services and transport infrastructure is vital to promoting successful local high streets and thriving local communities.
  • Investment in skills and training. With new technology being introduced all the time and working practices constantly evolving, there needs to be proper investment in skills, training and apprenticeships, including funding for highly successful Union Learning schemes.

And to support workers by providing good quality jobs, we need:

  • A minimum wage that is a real living wage. The national minimum wage should be immediately increased to £10 per hour. 
  • Guarantees over working hours. A minimum 16 hours per week for everyone who wants it with contracts based on the normal hours worked and an end to zero-hour contracts. 
  • Freedom From Fear and Respect for Shopworkers. Nobody should be abused or assaulted just for doing their job. We need ‘Protection of Workers’ legislation to tackle abuse and violence frontline workers face. 
  • More support for low-paid workers. Improved sick pay and a proper social security system instead of the current Universal Credit mess.
  • Job security. Greater protection from redundancy, proper consultation over the introduction of new technologies/automation, and investment in skills.
  • Fair treatment and equality for all workers. Women workers need equal pay and they need decent pay.  We need new family friendly rights that give parents and carers real choices to support juggling work and family life.
  • A real voice at work. Trade unions recognised in the workplace.  

There is so much that needs to be done – and on all the evidence we have, it looks like the government is getting it wrong. They need to realise that time is not on their side, and none of us can afford for them to delay as they have done throughout the pandemic. There needs to be a ruthless focus on jobs with tailored support for those sectors that need it the most. This is exactly the approach that Labour is calling for, that we are calling for, that the country is calling for. The government just needs to listen and act.

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