Whatever lip-service may be paid to sustainable consuming, by far most European consumers still do their weekly shop in the big supermarket chains. A handful of groups have carved up this lucrative market and grown so powerful as to be able to drive producers’ selling prices steadily down. This is not to say that the customer always wins out in these price wars. And what about the workers?

There are 19 million of them in Europe’s mass retail sector, many working in the mainly grocery store supermarkets looked at in this report. No doubting that the supermarket boom has given jobs to hundreds of thousands of Europeans, very many of them young people and women. This foothold in the working world, however, can now only be had by giving up some expectations about well-being at work, and even a home life. Contingent employment relationships have increased; flexible working arrangements – shift, evening and weekend work – are widespread; pay is stubbornly low; any thoughts of service or quality work are frustrated by productivity demands; and workers’ job discretion is wiped out by increasingly invasive management methods and technologies.

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Editorial - Ringing the changes on working conditions is a start to exiting the crisis

Working life has got worse in Europe of late. Greece is a graphic example, and a poster child for a wider rolling back of rights. Labour law reforms have watered down both individual and collective rights. Sackings have been made easier. There is enforced flexibility of working time with the amount of authorized overtime pushed up and payment for... Find out more

Changing work - working for change in and beyond the EU

Inquiries into working conditions have been done in many European countries since just decades into the Industrial Revolution. The first European survey only happened in 1990. Instigated by the Dublin Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, it has been repeated at five-year intervals and the number of countries surveyed has... Find out more

Marianne De Troyer

Radical changes in mass retailing are undermining workers

In customers’ eyes, the jobs, tasks and work activities done by supermarket workers (checkout assistants, self-service staff, food counter assistants, storekeepers, meat and fish counter cutters and wrappers, etc.) are the same in all stores. The appearances, however, conceal very different employment and working conditions... The all-out pursuit... Find out more

Nathalie Delobbe

Staff well-being and storeperformance: get one, get the other free?

Protection of employees’ well-being at work is a legal right. But can it also be a key contributor to business performance and good for the employer? A survey done in two large Belgian retailers looked for the answer. In 1996, Belgium introduced a Well-being at Work Act off the back of the EU Health and Safety at Work Directive requiring all... Find out more

Denis Grégoire

Workers feel used and abused

Stress, pressure from above, disregard, abuse from customers and more are all daily fare for most supermarket workers. Add in job insecurity across the sector, and it is small wonder that psychosocial risks are taking a toll on a growing number of employees. "All staff have access to an onsite occupational health unit which offers massage and... Find out more

Fabrice Warneck

Trading hours: it’s about the society we want

Shop opening hours are fundamental to society and how our daily lives are run. Even leaving work early, you always get home too late. There’s the school run to do, the post office to call in at, let alone the traffic jams. So when does the shopping get done? Supermarkets sympathise with their customers’ daily hassles: they want their staff to have... Find out more

Jan Czarzasty

Hard times: working conditions in Poland’s supermarket sector

The past ten years have seen some of Europe’s biggest volume retailers making huge inroads into the Polish market. Trade unions are finding it hard to gain a foothold in this new sector. Few employees are in a union, and social dialogue is limited, which clearly goes nowhere towards helping improve employment and working conditions. Working... Find out more

Daniele Di Nunzio

Young Italian shopworkers: sick of insecurity

One in five young workers in Italy works in retailing. Ten years of strong growth in this sector has given many young people a job. The downside is that most are casualised with few prospects and little task discretion; the work is both physically and psychologically draining, and accident risks are very high. During the 2000s, expansion in Italy’s... Find out more

Morten Torbjørn Andersen

Something in the air at Copenhagen airport

Copenhagen Airport is leading the field in bringing down workplace air pollution. The local branch of the United Federation of Danish Workers has played a key role in keeping air pollution a live issue. Unremitting pressure, alliances with experts, and social dialogue have been key in setting the agenda. The concentration of ultrafine particles in... Find out more

Mathieu Strale

The logistics revolution in volume retailing

Volume retailing has revamped its goods supply and distribution system in line with the increase in trade in the wider economy. The change has been going since the early 90s, and workers are feeling its effects. The mass retail sector’s provision of a wide range of goods was marked early on by greater centralization than high street shops. This was... Find out more

Michael Quinlan

Road haulage in Australia: keeping vulnerable workers safe and sound

Despite the dominance of neoliberal ideology and policies, organised labour can mount campaigns to confront their adverse effects on the safety, health and wellbeing of workers, especially those in precarious work arrangements. A campaign by the Australian transport workers’ union shows that it is possible to regulate supply chains. In Europe... Find out more

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Discounting the workers: conditions in the retail sector