Getting a New Deal for Retail Workers after the Covid Pandemic – Tracy Gilbert

Fair Work Convention member Tracy Gilbert is the regional secretary for Usdaw, the UKs largest retail union and chairs the Fair Work Working Group for the Scottish Governments Industrial leadership group.

Tracy Gilbert – Scottish Regional Secretary for USDAW

There can be no doubt over the fundamental importance of Scotland’s retail sector. Retail employs an estimated 250,000 workers, around 10% of the workforce, and contributes £6 billion annually to the Scottish economy.

Retail workers are as diverse and interesting a workforce as you will find across any sector; from those who are make it their careers, to students, pensioners, and everyone in between. Scotland’s hard-working retail staff are the beating heart of our high streets, building up rapport with customers and providing an anchor to local communities.

Making sure the diverse range of workers in the industry are treated fairly, with dignity and that all workers have their voices heard is hugely important to me, and that’s why the Fair Work Working Group is such an important initiative.

During the pandemic, the contribution of retail workers as key workers in the economy was widely recognised. Faced with the prospect of shops closing and food being limited, we all realised how quickly things would fall apart if shop-workers weren’t there to support us.

But it shouldn’t just be in times of crisis that retail workers get the recognition they deserve.

Retail workers are committed to their industry and turn up every day ready to engage in the work they do – whether that’s making sure the country is fed during a global pandemic or just making sure milk and bread are on the shelves day-in, day-out.

But retail work continues to be taken for granted, and pay in retail is some of the lowest of any industry. Staff turnover is high, and many workers report that they are struggling with their personal finances. We also see working conditions such as sick pay lagging behind those for workers in other industries.

The Fair Work Working Group has been a great opportunity to focus on how we can make the retail sector work more fair, fulfilling and meaningful for those within the industry. Ultimately, our goal is to create a Fair Work Agreement for retail workers in Scotland.

But what can be done to ensure that the retail sector attracts people with the best working conditions? And what can be done to ensure the industry retains its hard working staff?

As a trade unionist, I believe engagement is key. And giving people a say in their own destiny in the workplace will lead to better terms and conditions for workers, better commitment from workers and ultimately a stronger, thriving retail sector.

With this in mind, the Fair Work Working Group has identified five key areas of change that could make a real impact to retail work in Scotland. These are ‘security’, ‘respect’, ‘opportunity’, ‘fulfilment’ and an ‘effective voice’.

It may seem basic, but making sure people are paid fairly is the foundation of all fair work. Many people in retail are still paid below the real living wage (as identified by the Living Wage Foundation) and hourly rates won’t guarantee a decent standard of living without a secure contract that reflects the hours you usually work. This means we need to bring an end to exploitative short-hours and zero-hours contracts.

We also need to tackle sick pay. In a recent survey carried out by my union Usdaw, more than three quarters of our members said they cannot afford to take time off work when they are ill. Health, safety and wellbeing are key to ensuring fair work for all, as is respect within the workplace, this means peer to peer respect, as well as respect from employers and policy makers.

Listening to workers is key. No-one knows their industry better than the people who work within it, and the diverse workforce within retail is a goldmine of talent to be listened to and learnt from.

From a trade union perspective, being able to speak up and have your voice heard underpins all other elements of fair work for me. Employers working together with staff and unions to develop policy and look at best practice is the best way to ensure bottom-up engagement.

We have made some fantastic progress towards achieving a Fair Work Agreement. We now need to put flesh on the bones of our ideas. Looking at how it can be used to maximise its benefits for Scotland’s retail workers, alongside the other fantastic campaigns that already exist, like the Living Wage Campaign and the Scottish Business Pledge.

There’s work to do, but the foundation we have put together so far has been a promising start and I am so excited to get working on the agreement and getting it up and running to benefit all workers in Scottish retail.