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What’s It Like to Work for Argos at Christmas?

I spoke to Steve Stockwell, a retail distribution worker at Argos and Unite the Union rep, about the challenges of working in retail distribution at Christmas, the problems of agency work, and the exploitation of both migrant and non-migrant workers.

What’s it like working in retail distribution at this time of year?

“At the minute the pressure’s on, and there’s plenty of work to be done. Workers are squeezed for time. If you’re in food warehouses like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, then peak period is going to be the week before Christmas. At Argos and other non-food retail outlets like ours, our peak period was Black Friday, but there’s still cages up the aisles as there’s a lot of work to get sent out. It’s a frustrating environment to work in as you can’t get the job done as easily and effectively as you would normally - congested conditions mean we need to put more work in to achieve the same rates as we would normally.”

“Another thing that makes work difficult at this time of year is the cold. One of our jobs involves getting the goods in - going onto the back of ice-cold trailers, picking up pallets and bringing them out the front. A lot of warehouses don’t have heating, or the heating is ineffective, so freezing working conditions are a major issue for many warehouse workers at this time of year.”

What are the main challenges in retail distribution in terms of pay and terms and conditions?

“If you’re a full-time employee in an organised workplace with a trade union negotiating your terms and conditions, your wages aren’t too bad. Locally it’s around £11.50 an hour, which is a liveable wage. The issue that we’ve got, however, is the undercutting of pay and terms and conditions by an increase in agency work. These workers generally come in on minimum wage, so they’re paid less, and they’re also expected to do more weekend working, so the impact on their family life is greater. There are plenty of agency workers who are having a tough time with work and shift patterns and are struggling with money. It’s a really common problem."

“I started working in this warehouse in 1996. Back then there use to be in-house temporary workers, and there was no agency work at all. In around 2000 they started bringing agencies in, and slowly but surely, the agency numbers crept up and permanent numbers went down. What’s happened - and this has happened across multiple workplaces - is that we’ve now got a second generation contract for the permanent staff, with less pay and different shift patterns. Obviously the undercutting of wages and terms and conditions isn’t agency workers fault - it’s the business model.”

“A few years ago, our company went from using a manual method of picking to using machinery. We had one particular woman who’d been an agency worker for about 8 or 9 years who couldn’t pass her test on the machinery. They sacked her. She’s not from the UK and her English isn’t great, and she was stressed out of her mind about being able to find another job. We told our general manager on site that if they didn’t give her her job back, we’d ballot our members. Within a week she had her job back, with better terms and conditions than a normal agency worker.”

What do you think needs to be done to improve the lives of retail workers - both permanent staff and agency workers?

“There needs to be a rebalancing of working hours and working life. In retail distribution there’s too much of a focus on being there all the time to get products out, but there needs to be a step back to how it was in the 70s and the 80s. Back when I was a kid, nothing was open on a Sunday. Everyone had the Saturday evening and the Sunday day off. This was time spent with the family - we all sat round the table and had meals together. We need to bring the social aspect of life back.”

“A share of the profits of would also help, because obviously what we have now is the bosses at the top taking home big pay packets, and then agency workers at the bottom taking home the minimum wage. We need to redress the balance.”

“Bringing agency pay in line with full time pay also needs to be on the government’s agenda. There shouldn’t be a difference - we’re all doing the same job in the same building for the same employer, and so we should be equally paid. It’s the same for the difference between migrant and non-migrant workers. There’s a lot of talk about migrant workers coming over and stealing our jobs, when actually the problem is that the system’s broken. It doesn’t matter which worker goes into that job - English, Polish or eastern-European - it’s the abuse of people that we need to deal with. We need to address this, but it needs to be done from a government perspective as much as it does from a workplace one.”