Should we blacklist businesses who have mistreated their staff during the coronavirus crisis when we are free to consume again?
The last couple of weeks have been some of the most strange of our lives, as every bustling high street and rowdy pub across Britain is closed. Several “valuable” people have now joined the thousands diagnosed with Covid-19, including Prince Charles and, of course, Boris Johnson himself, with Michael Gove enlightening us that the virus “does not discriminate”, perhaps in an attempt to bring Britain together in some sort of Kumbaya moment. Prince Charles and Johnson are not really “in it together”, though, with the thousands of retail and hospitality workers who have lost their jobs and, in many cases, have been exploited by their employers. Should we blacklist businesses who have mistreated their staff during the crisis when we are free to consume again?
Topshop staff on temporary contracts were told that they had lost their jobs just hours before the Chancellor unveiled the scheme to pay 80% of workers’ wages. A University of Glasgow student was one of the many workers who received the phone call apologising for early contract termination. For them, the lack of support from the company is the main issue and they could see a case for boycotting the high street chain post-virus if there is no support or vacancies offered to those who they describe as “valuable trained and productive workers.”
Images have circulated on Twitter of Wetherspoons pubs around the country spray-painted with messages of “PAY YOUR STAFF”, after the date of the next paycheck for thousands of workers was left hanging in uncertainty. The staff of these pubs had to endure further suffering through the form of a video message from Tim Martin (which would make unpleasant viewing at the best of times) in which he tells staff they should feel free to get a job at Tesco. Ah, thanks, Tim. I’m sure all 40,000+ of your staff, plus everyone else from the hospitality industry out of work, can descend upon Tesco stores and battle it out for a turn on the till. The company has since said staff will be paid 80% of their wages in line with the government support system, but Martin’s selfishness and disregard will leave a stain on the company for years to come.
So, is it time to ditch The Counting House on post-corona sub-crawls? Voices have been raised on social media, encouraging people to boycott the chain and other companies who have mistreated their staff. I spoke to one student who has worked in two Wetherspoons pubs through two degrees in both Manchester and Leeds. In their opinion, a boycott would hurt workers most, as “they cut hours all the time” meaning many workers would probably be laid off if trade were to take a hit. Instead, they say the best way for the public to support workers who have been mistreated is to support unionisation and the efforts of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) in this situation.
The economic impact of this virus is as strong as the health one, and tough times undoubtedly lie ahead for many whose work has been closed. Blacklisting businesses is not the answer to helping these workers – it will just put more out of work and leave more struggling to pay rent and put food on the table. If we feel a shared outrage with these workers, we should consider the impact our actions have on them rather than just thinking about one face - rich power holders like Tim Martin or Philip Green – instead of thousands.
The former strikes me as someone who finds deep pleasure in playing a controversial, villain-like character in society in order to seem relevant and have a platform to spout his agenda. They are not the ones who could seriously be struggling to make ends meet as a result of this crisis, so we need to forget them in making decisions about our actions and think about the workers, who we can help by supporting unions fighting for better working conditions and treatment to prevent situations like this from happening again. West Brewery from Glasgow has announced that they will stop supplying Wetherspoons. A large business attacking the management makes this far more productive than a boycott. Large businesses should level with management and the general public with the front line workers.
This crisis has been a wake-up call for many in that, unless you happen to be a multi-millionaire owning circa 900 pubs, you can find yourself thrown into desperation at any time. Reliance on benefits and food banks was something unimaginable barely a month ago to thousands of people for whom it is now a reality. Middle-class people to whom the cries of frustration about universal credit have been a distant echo over the last few years will now have to experience its harsh reality. There is a feeling that our society will never be the same as it was before this crisis, so let’s make it one with more solidarity, understanding, and concern for each other. Never allow yourself to be fooled into believing the people at the throne of a company are more like you than those behind the counter. If we have learned anything from this, it is that we never know what’s around the corner, and when we may need the help others currently do.