Shelf Life 3

An anonymous supermarket employee fills the store through interpretive dance

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A few weeks ago, we became officially important.

“Key workers, eh?” a colleague said. “Looks like we’re not scum anymore.”

Everybody laughed. And since anyone who has spent time working in a supermarket has been reminded at least once that they don’t occupy a high status place in the occupational food chain, you can understand why.

Still, I don’t think this is entirely accurate. It’s more that we’re invisible most of the time, or at least hard to detect with the naked eye. People are aware of all these folk in uniforms scurrying around the store and they are aware of all these shelves full of stuff. It just seems to be difficult for them to make the connection between these two facts and the additional fact that the service they provide enables everyone else to live without hunting rabbits or worrying about their crops.

Since when were the people at the sharp end of the food chain not “key workers”, after all?

That goes for a lot of other members of the invisible working class who also turned out to be key workers: cleaners, social care workers, posties, truckers, binmen, bus and train drivers and many more who are only visible when they wear hi-viz – and then people only see the hi-viz.

I suspect it’s this sudden enhancement of status that may be behind the unco-operative behaviour we sometimes get from customers. They just can’t process the fact that low status people in low status uniforms are telling them what to do, and meaning it. You mean that I can’t come into the store with my friend? That one of us has to stay outside? You who work in retail are telling us things? Truly, the world is upside down.

A few weeks ago I was just this guy who spent a few nights a week humping forty pound banana boxes around, among other things. Now I’m part of a group that is not only Feeding Our Nation, as the all-hands email from management put it, but serving as auxiliary traffic cops and junior officials in an unofficial Ministry of Supply.

So what’s work like then, now that we’re important? The job on the night shift is the same as ever, only more so as deliveries increase and we get to grips with filling the stores. The banter is a a bit louder, and not only because we’re all sitting at separate tables in the canteen these days. The hierarchy between manager and managed also seems to have flattened. Both sides know that kind of status game isn’t helpful these days. There are enough gloves and hand sanitiser for everyone, but no masks. More colleagues have begun wearing their own or otherwise finding ways to cover their faces. We have lots of free t-shirts with inspirational slogans for those who find that kind of thing inspiring. People talk about “it” , because it would be ridiculous not to. At the same time, people don’t talk about “it” too much because… well, because it can’t be helped. Let me tell you what I mean.

Things are crowded out on the shop floor, despite the fact that we close at nights right now; there are lots of new colleagues who need to be shown the ropes and dotcom workers come in at 4am to shift the backlog. Space in the warehouse consists of a narrow canyon formed between piles of Easter eggs that no one seems to want this year and pallets of toilet roll waiting for people to use up all the supplies they panic-bought a few weeks ago. There are choke points and bottlenecks as people try to shift heavy cages of groceries in and out of
the aisles.

Colleagues try to observe the social distancing niceties. We duck and dive, turn our faces away, sidestep when possible, back up when we can. It’s all very elaborate. To adapt an old joke, it’s like watching a store being filled through the medium of interpretive dance.

But still, despite all our efforts, we’re not following the rules all the time. We can’t follow the rules all the time. You can’t re-stock a superstore while staying a constant two metres away from all the other people trying to do the same thing. It’s just a fact of life, and hopefully not a fact of the other thing.

Like other big names in the sector, the company I work for has behaved well towards staff. Vulnerable colleagues have been sent home on full pay. Most of the rest of us have been given a bonus (this does not include temporary staff, and really, it should). And yet the company is not a charity. It wouldn’t be paying us danger money if there wasn’t any danger. It’s one of those things that all of us know but none of us thinks about too much.

And now that I’ve told you about it, that’s what I’m going to try and do as well.

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