Produce section in a supermarket
Supermarkets can be places of everyday abuse for their staff

The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted how important essential supermarket workers are, but in reality, they are often amongst the most poorly paid and undervalued employees within our society.

A newly-published book by Dr Alex Wood, Lecturer in the Sociology of Work at the University of Birmingham, is founded on his research into precarious work.

Dr Wood experienced the daily working life of employees at two of the largest retailers in the world, one in the UK and one in the US, by going undercover in the workplace to experience first-hand how these workers are being treated.

“Not only does my research within the book detail that low-pay and managerial abuse were rife, but also that these essential workers often face a scheduling nightmare as a result of the on-demand economy. At the drop of a hat, workers’ hours would be changed, and they would no longer be able to make ends meet or their new schedule would make caring for their children and loved ones impossible,” says Dr Wood.

This scheduling nightmare is faced by 16% of all UK workers and 37% of all US workers and is concentrated in the retail sector. This is particularly concerning to Dr Wood, as Rachel, a US worker explains that “You are just wondering like, ‘Oh my God, are they going to change my hours, are they going to cut my hours next week, am I going to have enough money for my rent next week?’’

Through his research, he has also found that the insecurity caused by precarious scheduling practices, such as flexible, short, and zero-hour contracts, is not only harmful to the wellbeing of workers, but managers often take advantage of this precariousness to ‘flexibly discipline’ workers.

The findings show that if a worker is deemed not to be working hard enough or to have a ‘bad attitude’ they could be punished simply by having their hours reduced or their shift rescheduled. Derek, a worker in the UK, said that his colleagues “are terrified of not getting any more shifts and being stuck with this three-and-a-half or seven hours a week, which they can’t live on […] Being desperate for some extra hours, they depend on the mood of the manager for their income […] Once your face doesn’t fit you don’t get any more hours.”

“With the current crisis making clear how much we rely on low-paid and undervalued employees, I hope this book demonstrates that these workers deserve a ‘new normal’ in which despotic precarious scheduling is eradicated from the workplace,” says Dr Wood.

  • For more information or to request an interview, please contact Tony Moran on +44 7827 832312.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries. 
  • Publication details: ‘Despotism On Demand: How Power Operates in The Flexible Workplace’ is published by ILR Press (an imprint of Cornell University Press) Friday 15 May. 
  • The research last 18 months in 2012 and 2013 with fieldwork undertaken in London and California. Data collection included working as a shelf stacker at a North London supermarket for two months, observation at dozens of stores and union meetings and 81 interviews with 68 informants. 
  • All names have been changed to protect the identities of the participants.