Steve is a supermarket worker from Glasgow. Steve’s story reflects on the initial days of the pandemic and of working through the lockdown. Steve has also provided photographs documenting empty supermarket shelves in those initial days.
With lockdown easing and effectively ending, I’ve been thinking back to where it all began and how the fear and panic in the beginning has given way to indifference and non-compliance.
First let’s rewind. I took a job working in a supermarket last year before Christmas, having been out of work for a while. I’ll be honest I wasn’t looking forward to it, but “needs must” I said to myself. Little did I know 3 months later I would be enjoying my new work and making new friends. Then the world literally came crashing down around all of us.
Like most people I was glued to the news and social media as it brought us scenes of the virus from China, then Italy, then finally it was here. A little at first but it became clear that we would be going into lockdown.
5 days before the lockdown, panic had set in and the shop was rammed with people grabbing anything and everything they could. We couldn’t put the stuff out fast enough. At the height of it all we had 8,000 empty product lines in the shop, our back warehouse was effectively empty of any overstock and the daily delivery was being snapped up off the shelves before midday. Fresh meats, milk, bread, antibacterial hand soap and wipes, baby food, nappies, tinned veg, tinned soup, eggs and whole stacks of fresh fruit & veg lines were empty by 10am every morning. Anti bacterial hand gel was gone within the first hour of the shop opening! As a result purchasing limits were put on certain items. Just a few things at first but that list grew exponentially each day.
It’s not hyperbolic for me to say it literally felt like the system was collapsing. This is backed up by grocery chain CEOs and politicians on TV for 2 days straight telling people, ordering people, to stop panic buying. However could you blame them? I know I didn’t. The government had been shrugging this off, playing it down, now all of a sudden they’d changed their minds and everyone was confused and scared! The response from the bosses was slow at first too but eventually they got us protective screens, hand sanitiser and gloves.
The next big test came when social distancing was enforced. I say enforced; in our shop it was lackadaisical at best. On day one of queuing and limits on the number of customers in the store, we went from 40 at 7am to 50 by 9am then 60, 70, 80, 100 then 115 by 2PM. Hundreds of people walked within a foot or two past me each day for months, long before masks!
The staff were scared to say the least, and it turns out nothing could be done! Why you might ask? Well the answer was simple; the government (that’s the Scottish government) had not set down any rules or guidelines on the number of people allowed inside shops, so the bosses could do what they liked. The primary concern of the bosses was that the queue outside was too long. Now bear in mind that at this point only really the supermarkets remained open, we were a necessity. Without the food production line from farm to shelf staying open people would starve. Yet here we were, no info, no effective social distancing, no protection from the government against the bosses who did not really giving a flying **** about our safety. Now we have the mask policy, a policy which the retail consortium and the big retailers have all said they will not enforce. So what’s the point in having a mandatory policy if the bosses are prepared to ignore it in the pursuit of profit?
They called us essential workers. Not on the same level as those who work in the NHS, who were on the front line, who still are, but we were key workers. However in reality we were expendable workers. Those who work in the supermarkets are among the lowest paid in the country; ordinary working class people, single parents, teenagers and young people in their first job.
During this time I’ve worked ridiculous shifts with overtime most weeks; doing between 40-50 hours. Let me be clear though I wanted to work, and with everyone on lockdown you felt a certain amount of freedom that others didn’t. However there was no furlough for us and no working from home. If I’d had a choice I would have worked from home or gone on furlough, especially seeing how ineffective the bosses were at enforcing social distancing in the shop.
The pandemic is not over and those of us working in the supermarkets are taking a breathe for the first time in 4 months. The new normal for us is wearing a mask for 6-7 hours a day while hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of people walk right past you. They will also reach across you to get something off a shelf or come right up to you, then take their mask off to ask you a question. If a second wave causes another national lockdown most people will be safe back in their homes, we’ll still be at work, working in places that have been and continue to be hotspots for virus transmission.
The virus has made everyone reevaluate almost every part of society. Look at all the jobs we’ve been told are low paid, low skill, rubbish jobs, these are now suddenly essential. The policies from governments around state intervention and nationalisation that were impossible are suddenly possible, life finds a way. We see already the rush from the bosses and capitalists governments from around the world to return to normal, but just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz we’ve peaked behind the curtain now, we know what is and isn’t possible we understand and we don’t want to go back we want a new world, a better world and all across the globe people are getting together forming new collectives, joining their unions and standing up to fight for their chance at a “new normal” one that puts people before profit!