Via Financial Times

Brittney Legowski had panic attacks in the Walmart bathrooms as Wisconsin consumers emptied shelves at the store where she was working. 

“I have been getting so stressed out with demands from managers. It’s just been pressure, pressure, pressure,” said the 21 year-old, who has since taken unpaid leave, fearful for her health.

As millions of people have retreated to work from home in the face of Coronavirus, huge swaths of the workforce have no option but to continue with their daily routine, heading to warehouses, factories and supermarkets across the world in spite of the obvious risks.

“I could understand if we did things like food or medical equipment, but we’re just doing trainers and tracksuits,” said an employee at a warehouse in the northern English town of Rochdale owned by JD Sports, one of the UK’s biggest sportswear chains.

“All we hear are the slogans saying ‘Stay home, help the NHS and save lives’. But we can’t,” the employee said. 

It is situations like this that prompted UK labour union Unite to call for drinks group Diageo to “close down production to put worker safety over profit” at its Scottish factories bottling Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker.

Diageo said it had done everything it could to protect staff and that “all employees who can work from home are doing so”.

Walmart said it is hiring 150,000 workers to help meet customer demand, and last month set out plans for a $300 bonus for full-time and $150 for part-time workers. John Furner, the head of the Walmart in the US, recognised it had been “a very uncertain and stressful time” and thanked staff for their efforts.

Their responses go to the heart of the dilemma facing companies, governments and, ultimately, consumers as the pandemic tightens its grip: what jobs are important enough to justify the much greater risks now involved in heading out to work?

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Jeremias Adams-Prassl, professor of law at Oxford university, said “what we’re forced to confront is that employment protection is not just about employment, it has a huge role protecting consumers and society”. If you’re a worker in the “gig economy” of short-term, low-paid contracts, he added, “and you feel a bit ill, the chances are that you continue to go to work due to the incentives in place”. 

The self-employed are more likely to work in sectors hit by a large drop in demand

At the same time, the threat of contagion in the workplace means many companies have been struggling with staff absences. Amazon, whose business is booming with people confined to their homes, experienced a walkout by some staff in New York this week over a lack of protective equipment.

In Australia, dozens of wharf workers at a DP World terminal at Melbourne port were stood down after refusing to unload a container vessel that had previously docked in Shanghai and Taiwan. DP World said safety concerns raised by the Maritime Union of Australia were unfounded because of the length of time the crew had been at sea. 

A lack of clarity from governments about what constitutes “essential” work also heightens the risk that lower-paid staff, such as delivery drivers and warehouse workers, are unnecessarily put in harm’s way. 

Hilda Palmer of the Hazards Campaign, which advocates for justice and safety at work in the UK, said: “We have a situation where people going to non-essential work could be pulled over by the police and fined, but there is no enforcement against employers.” The group intends to use International Workers Memorial day on April 28 to highlight problems of precarious insecure work, poor sick pay, and a lack of attention to health and safety, she said.

In the US, few retail workers have union representation but groups such as United for Respect, of which Ms Legowski is a member, are campaigning for better conditions.

A group of gig economy workers at Instacart, the US grocery delivery service, went on strike this week because they wanted hand sanitisers, but also for reasons that predate the crisis and, according to unions, have only been made more urgent by it: the need for higher wages and sick pay for a flexible workforce that receives very few benefits. 

European employment by occupation, treemap

The pandemic may have started in China, but it has created the rare situation in which the balance of power between workers and management is now under intense public scrutiny in countries around the world.

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Last month, a chorus of outrage forced UK retail billionaire Mike Ashley into a rare apology after he claimed that the exercise equipment he sold was essential and his Sports Direct chain should stay open, even as the government ordered much of the high street to shut.

In Australia, Qantas was rebuked by health and safety authorities this month for putting staff and customers at risk: the airline had required cleaners to board a plane that arrived from Beijing on January 30 at the height of China’s outbreak without protective equipment, after staff initially refused.

In Italy, after the government shocked the world with lockdowns first of the region of Lombardy and then the whole country, many factories initially remained open with encouragement from authorities, before closing under pressure from unions. 

Bar chart of Share of employees that sometimes or usually worked from home in 2018* (%) showing Fewer Italians work from home

As countries face up to the prospect of lengthy lockdowns, anxiety among workers who cannot stay at home continues to rise. 

Although JD Sports has reduced the number of staff at its Rochdale site by two-thirds, the employee who spoke to the FT worried it was a “breeding ground” not least because any one item might be touched by many different workers as it made its way from the warehouse floor to the delivery trucks.

Technology introduced to monitor staff is also seen as problematic.

“We’re not wiping everything down. We clock in using our fingerprint, 400 or 500 people are constantly clocking in for breaks, to go to the toilet, it’s a constant thing. We have sanitisers near the scanners, but sometimes they’re empty,” the employee said.

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Some studies have found that the virus is viable on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours.

JD Sports said it had increased hygiene and cleaning processes, and that the local authorities were happy with its measures.

Some companies say minimising the risk to employees is not straightforward. 

Ronald Kers, chief executive of 2 Sisters Food Group, the UK’s largest chicken producer, pointed to the challenges of maintaining the recommended 2m social distance between workers on production lines.

“We’ve got more than 30 sites across the group and every site is different, the layout, the product, the light, the circumstances so we’re trying to adapt as well as possible,” he said.

Absenteeism was “going up” for a variety of reasons, Mr Kers added, including self-isolation and people who “weren’t sure about whether they should actually be at work”.

Editor’s note

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In the absence of widespread testing in most countries that would allow employees to know whether they are well enough to work, some companies, such as Swiss industrial company ABB, have started their own testing programmes.

Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, said it was installing “sneeze guards” at checkouts and using wipes and sprayers for shopping trolleys. It also said it would provide gloves and masks for staff, supplies permitting, and that their temperatures would be taken.

“Any associate with a temperature of 100.0 degrees will be sent home,” said Mr Furner, and anyone with Covid-19 will be given paid leave.

Additional reporting by Jamie Smyth in Sydney.