2003 Results

Workers module commentary

This module looked at pay and working conditions for supermarket workers (in particular check-out operators or general assistants) and farm and factory workers in the companies that supply food to supermarkets, both in the UK and overseas.

Labour standards are the framework to make improvements and we began with asking about the supermarkets commitment to these standards. Each supermarket that responded had responsibilities for labour standards designated at board level and had management structures to support this commitment both in the UK and through their supply chains.

We looked in more detail at the implementation of labour standards within the companies and in particular how this implementation affected checkout operators (or general assistants) who are at the lower end of the pay scales. We were particularly interested in the number of contracted hours these staff worked, how long they stayed in their jobs, their pay and conditions and what benefits were available to them. This presented a more complex picture.

The retail sector has traditionally high levels of staff turnover and this data demonstrated annual staff turnover rates either side of the 50% mark. Pay was reasonably comparable across the sector, with all of the supermarkets offering rates slightly above the National Minimum Wage. It should however be noted that although the NMW has undoubtedly improved pay for those on the bottom tier of the pay structure, retail checkout operators (84% are women) still fall in the bottom ten percent of non-manual occupations with average full-time earnings of less than £200 a week.


In addition, the data provided shows that a significant percentage of staff are not contracted to work the minimum number of hours required to pay NI contributions and will be excluded from pensions and other contribution-based benefits thus damaging their long term financial security.

The issue of flexibility is an important one. Flexible hours make working for supermarkets attractive to many people for a number of reasons. For example, young mothers, students etc. From the responses given, and the limited amount of supporting data provided by the supermarkets, it is difficult to gauge what mechanisms exist for checkout operators to change their working hours. The supermarkets refer to flexibility within work schedules but no details were provided. Evidence from trade unions indicates that demands from the supermarkets for greater flexibility and longer working hours from staff as opening hours are lengthened threatens this idea of family-friendly/ work-life balance benefits.

The response to the questions on employee representation are interesting and perhaps indicate that the supermarkets who have responded have more open policies than some of the others.

All these supermarkets have structures which include staff councils or consultative forums. Trade union recognition agreements which make provision for collective bargaining over pay are relatively unusual in the sector but the Co-op makes pay the subject of collective bargaining and a national agreement and is to be commended for this. Pay bargaining also takes place within Somerfield and Safeway has a recognition agreement with USDAW which covers the majority of staff although this does not include pay and benefits.


Codes of conduct are increasingly used as a way of shaping corporate policy on labour standards and as an attempt to take some responsibility for what happens throughout their complex supply chains. To make them effective, workers need to be familiar with the codes and have confidence that they will be respected if they are to benefit from the protection they provide. Effective monitoring and independent verification are critical and the module attempted to capture data on this.

The supermarkets responded well to this set of questions and supplied excellent supporting data. They all have Codes modelled on the ETI Base Code and have a range of good practice which includes training for key staff and suppliers, the development of tools to help suppliers review their compliance with the Code and participation in ETI pilots and projects.

The data also highlighted other areas which need addressing by the supermarkets. These included the Code only being adopted for own-brand products and their associated supply chains and a lack of financial commitment to help with implementation of the Code by their suppliers. This can be an important limitation as compliance costs can be significant and varied including such things as auditing charges, management and capital costs to improve equipment or systems to make them compliant. These additional costs can push the smaller suppliers out of business.

The extent to which labour standards improve working conditions in the supply chain depends on monitoring and verification and the supermarkets' responses reveal that they are at different stages of development on this. All participating supermarkets record a high level of implementation with first tier suppliers and all monitor implementation internally and externally. Only the Co-op currently has verification of its audits carried out by an independent company.


Overall this data further developed the picture of commitment to and implementation of labour standards in the supermarkets both within the UK and globally in their supply chains. There were lots of examples of good practice which included:

Some areas for improvement which were highlighted by the data included:


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