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“Little Miseries” in Big Retail

A Day in the Life of a Cashier

18,000 views and hundreds of comments, likes and shares. That is the reaction this article, written by a cashier herself, received when it was first published in French a little over a week ago. And it is a reaction that comforts us in our project to create a platform for those whose voice never makes it into the news stories of traditional media outlets. A platform that not only talks about labor struggles, but also everyday life, the suffering and the exploitation to which millions of people are subjected daily, most of the time in silence, by contemporary society. If we have decided to translate this article into English, today, it is because we believe that the story it tells is universal. From a French Carrefour Market, where employees have been courageously fighting for better wages after an insultingly derisory raise of thirty cents an hour, to an American Wal-Mart, where employees have been spearheading the struggle for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize, via an English Sainsbury, the very real consequences of exploitation, especially in big retail, and the fight against it know no boundaries.

lundi 22 juin 2015

M., cashier in a supermarket in the Bordeaux region

Monday, it is almost noon. Behind her cash register, Stephanie is crying.

"Why are you crying ?” I ask her while taking a few steps closer...in one of those rare moments when there are no customers.

"I can’t take it anymore,” she says, “the critiques, the insults, the arguments with co-workers...”

Stephanie is a mother, in her forties. She has a strong character and does not seem to let herself be taken advantage of. Yet, she is crying at her register...

Life in a supermarket is not always easy. When it is not the supervisors, managers or the boss, it is our own colleagues, our peers, who make us miserable on the daily. Psychological bullying is a well-known technique among supermarket management... and the “natural” way to treat your fellow workers is with disregard, petty-mindedness, screaming and insults.

In Leon Trotsky’s “The Struggle for Cultured Speech”, published in 1923, Trotsky has the following to say about the relationships among workers : “Russian swearing in “the lower depths” was the result of despair, embitterment and, above all, slavery without hope, without escape.” This agnst, which agressively expresses itself among employees, is a reflection of the pressure and demands to which they are subjected in supermarkets and, without a doubt, in all other sectors of the economy.

The lack of personnel, the work overload, the unbearable demands to go faster and faster all produce great frustration... “Every second wasted”, a simple question from a co-worker or even a customer, feels like a generalized attack against one’s own work.

It is a vicious cycle : shelfs are poorly stocked because of personnel shortages, products are not properly entered into the computer, or prices ring up wrong... All of this slows down the cashiers who must then call their counterparts in other departments to help clear out the growing lines of customers. The co-worker from bakery, from deli, from produce or from grocery complain afterwards because they have to go to the front-end and cannot finish their own work. The customers are stressed because they are busy and the lines are not moving.

Divide and Rule

In the grocery industry, divisions are everywhere : between permanent contracts and fixed-term contracts, part-timers and full-timers, employees who stock the shelves and those who work at checkout... Cashiers are generally women (94%) or students who need a few extra-dollars at the end of the week or to pay for college. Protest is rare, we ring out...in silence.

Cashiers have a lot less freedom than the other workers. The lack of personnel means that it is extremely difficult to take a quick pause or even to go to the bathroom for hours on end. In a country where different governments, be them left- or right-wing, pretend to defend women’s rights, not being able to go to the bathroom when we have our period, for exemple, can lead to extreme physical suffering.

We Have No Life

We work on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, sometimes until eight or nine o’clock depending on the store. We have unbalanced hours (three hours one day, ten the next). Coming to work for three hours generally means driving for miles and miles for very little pay. Sometimes even, we can work three hours in the morning from nine o’clock to noon and be forced to come back later on in the afternoon for another three-hour shift from four to seven o’clock...

In order to save gas, a lot of us stay in the store or “hang-out” in the vicinity... we literally lose three or four hours of our lives doing nothing, waiting for the next clock-in. In many cases, we have no fixed hours, which makes it virtually impossible to have a hobby, to practice a sport, to take an art class or even have a normal family life, to pick up the kids, to make them dinner, etc.

We must be versatile : we ring out the customers, we welcome them, we tidy up the shelves if we have some downtime... in short, one must be “productive”... and there is always something to do in the store. We clean the whole line of registers from top to bottom, sometimes even the bathrooms, and the break room that we never get to use... We put the anti-theft tags on clothes during the three-seconds it takes to swipe a credit card... There is no time to rest.

Sick leaves come one after another, the repetative gests at the register giving us tendonitis, standing all the time causing back problems, stress and work-related suffering making us depressed. We are forced to replace co-workers on sick leave or vacation... That is how we end up working forty-five hours a week instead of thirty. It is exhausting.

And, then, there is the unpaid overtime. Cashiers cannot leave their register as long as there are customers, that is why we never leave on time at the end of our shifts. The flow of customers keeps us in place. Once we have successfully cleared our lines and closed out our registers, we have to count them and that time is certainly not paid. And, if there is a long line in a co-workers register, we are “forced” to open up again... we never leave... and we all know that we will never be paid for the extra thirty or forty minutes we do daily.

A Ray of Sunlight, A Smile

Our relationship with the customers is peculiar. Oftentimes, we are “invisible”, almost part of the store’s decoration. It is different with the “regulars” for whom, sometimes, we are the only living beings with who they have the possibility to exchange a few words. Lots of old folks confide to us, and even younger ones do, too. The most intimate and touching secrets... the death of a loved one, of a child or a husband... Two friends, each in their eighties, told me one day how they were friends from a very young age... they used to hold hands while going to school... they saw German soldiers take away their parents... We sigh... One of the only satisfactions in this career is to hold the hand of an isolated stranger and to feel, at once, human again.



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