Image for post
Image for post
Illustration: Olga Souri / Noucmas

Supermarket Workers In The COVID-19 Era

The “common people” who performed a titanic task to keep society standing

Despina Papageorgiou
May 9 · 14 min read

Important Note: The names of the indicated interviewees have been changed as they wished to remain anonymous. Several employees from other chains declined an interview with Athens Live. This is indicative of the widespread terror among workers in the industry.

Sophia is certainly one of the employees who could have taken leave during the quarantine period, as she belongs to the vulnerable groups due to her health conditions. She could have also taken advantage of the “special cause” leave that the Greek government institutionalized for parents with young children, as she is a mother of two. However, Sophia chose to take only four days off under the special causes leave and several sick leave days when her surgical condition made her suffer unbearable pain. “It is not in my character,” she explains. “I should feel like I am really going to die to abstain from work. Especially in this period, I didn’t want to leave my colleagues to take the burden. Yes, I guess I am taking a risk.”

It is the sense of duty that keeps Sophia at the battlements. During this period of fear, the role of supermarket workers has shined fully for what it is: A crucial link in the food and basic goods supply chain, which keeps society from falling apart. “Just imagine the fear and the panic if people only suspected there would be basic commodities shortages! Not to mention the social explosion that closed supermarkets would cause,” says Dimitris Oikonomou, president of the Panhellenic Union of Sklavenitis supermarket chain employees. “It is the very nature of our job that brought us on the first line.”

If wages were really defined according to the so much praised law of demand and supply, wouldn’t supermarket workers, especially this period, receive a high wage? Currently, the basic wages in supermarkets is ranging roughly from 400 (part-time) to 800 euros (full-time employees).

These hardworking and underpaid people are overwhelmingly visible in exposing themselves to risk during this period, shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden.

“Most people understand now how necessary we food sector employees are, how important our role is for our society, both practically, in the sense of securing an unabated food flow, and psychologically, as open stores during this period reminded people something of yesterday’s ‘normal reality’. They made them feel somehow safe,” explains Oikonomou. Non-food stores were closed in Greece from the beginning of March until May 4. “These are historical and difficult days for all those working in the food industry, distribution centers, and supermarkets,” says Oikonomou. “We realized ourselves more than ever the societal footprint of our work, that we actually perform a social duty under extremely adverse circumstances.”

In the beginning, it was chaos

Nobody was prepared when the first case of coronavirus was verified in Greece. Thus, at the very beginning “many of our colleagues had to work without having been provided with protective means and in conditions of crowding,” says Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) Press Officer Dimitris Karageorgopoulos. Eventually, “some of them were infected with the coronavirus.”

Then, many supermarket employees claimed the ‘special causes’ or ‘vulnerable people’ leave and were absent. Stores were immediately faced with personnel shortages while the footfall was bursting and so did e-shop orders.

“At first, if they could take even the shelves, they would do so,” says Anna (also not her real name), in her early 40s, who works for another big supermarket chain, in a store on an Eastern Aegean island. “We were indeed under much pressure during our shifts.”Given those absent from work, “you really had to develop your superpowers to just basically manage.”

“You cannot imagine how many times I heard these days in the rudest way ‘it is your job,’” she continues. “Well, it was not. The clients were sometimes rude, aggressive, like what was happening was your fault. Now, maybe because the days have become sunnier, it has calmed down.”

“It was indeed chaos, in the first days. No distances kept, no nothing, especially by the elderly,” says Sophia. “Now, it’s better, but there are exceptions. People are still fighting all the time in the line as to who has priority. There are also those who praise us and ask how we can cope.”

“I was very stressed and pissed off at the beginning, because I felt like they had us all exposed to this and nobody cared and because the clients were really out of control,” says Daphne (not her real name) 25, who is working in a Crete store of a third big supermarket chain. “I received strong reactions even when I had to tell people there was a limit to the number of antiseptics they could buy. There was quarreling for nothing.”

To just illustrate footfall skyrocketing: from 24 February, when the first case of coronavirus was verified in Greece, until 12 April, supermarkets increased revenues by 30.7% as compared to the same period last year. E-shop orders, not very popular until now in Greece, made a staggering 307% increase. In Athens, for example, it could take up to a week for your order to be delivered as shops struggled to meet the increased demand.

Several chains eventually decided to hire more personnel with close-ended (one to a few months) contracts to ease the pressure. According to industry sources, for example, the Sklavenitis chain has hired 1,700 people. The CEO Gerasimos Sklavenitis declined an interview with AthensLive due to their ‘low public profile’ policy. My Market chain had announced it would hire 450.

GSEE Spokesperson claims personnel needs in the supermarkets are increasing the last three years. It is indicative that it is in these years “we receive reports from our colleagues for unregistered and unpaid over-hours,” meaning they are trying to get more work done by less people. This is why Karageorgopoulos insists supermarkets in general recruited far less people (and for a limited time) than the number that they actually needed.

According to the same sources, in Sklavenitis, the percentage of full-time employment is as high as 70%. This is an exception, however, as average part-time employment in supermarkets exceeds 40%. “Most [staff]in our store are part-time,” says Daphne. “Very few get work for more than six hours and only the higher ranking are full time. Overtime payment for part-time employees is much less compared to that of the full-time ones.” This could well be one of the reasons some chains prefer these contracts. And she continues: “Now they hired some people full-time for three months. They never asked if some of us already working for the chain want to become full time.”

Most chains gave bonuses to their employees for this period, in the form of prepaid cards to shop from their chain stores. “This bonus should have been given in money,” Daphne complains. “We might want to prioritize another need.”

“We have become psychologists in a way”

Restriction measures in Greece were first imposed on 6 March and the country had been in total lockdown (with citizens needing moving permits for a restricted number of reasons) from 23 March until 4 May. Hence, going to the supermarket was one of the few reasons to leave the house and became one of the few places to socialize.

“Yeah, definitely,” says Daphne. “In many cases, it was easy to understand that some have just come for socializing — mainly older people. I remember, for example, the one Sunday we worked a man came in just to buy two packs of caramels. Another one, for a bar of chocolate.”

“There was a man who had come two-three times one a day,” says Anna. “We asked him why. ‘You’ll see me even more times’, he replied. ‘I have quarreled with my wife and it’s impossible to stay home. Impossible!’ I felt sorry for him. I thought maybe I should provide him with an entrance card for the rest of the day, as a gift,” she says and laughs. “We have become psychologists in a way.”

What was the worst incident? “One day a woman walked into the store. A rumor had been circulating on the island that her husband had been sick from coronavirus,” Anna remembers. “I felt so sorry for her because at a glance an anthropophagic atmosphere developed. The way everybody was looking at her and whispering about her was just appalling. Like, even if her husband had indeed been sick, it was his fault. This is the most horrible thing I remember.”

There were also funny moments. “I was carrying a whole box of pasta to a woman who had asked me for it,” says Anna. “So she turns to me and says: ‘Maybe I won’t get sick from coronavirus, but I will surely get sick from ileus with all this pasta.’ Many customers have humor.”

And there were moments when solidarity took the lead. “We have a regular, an 85-year-old man, who stands quite well for his age and keeps coming three and four times every morning,” says Sophia. “He comes and shops for some of his elderly women neighbors, who are not strong or healthy enough to be able to come out of the house. We urge him all the time to avoid coming. ‘We say it for you. You should protect yourself’, we tell him. He does not realize he is also in danger. His main concern is to help his friends in need.”

“The employees were exposed to disproportionately big risks”

Supermarket employees are rightly worried about their own safety. “There were times that I got really scared, almost panicked. Mainly with the elderly that come closer to you,” says Sophia. “They also spit to help open plastic bags or select the paper note they need”.

“There were days that I thought ‘that’s it, we are all going to die’. But, in general, I kept calm,” says Anna. “Not all of us could. A colleague once burst into tears — and I understand why. Now, I am not afraid at all.”

“Even the measure of allowing one client per 10 m2 that after our insistence stretched to every 15 m2 was not very effective, since, in reality, people were crowding in specific corridors, they were not evenly distributed,” says Oikonomou.

The exposure became even greater when the government extended temporarily they said, the already long supermarket opening hours from 7 am (instead of 8) until 9 pm, while some days they closed at 10 pm. The government even decided to keep them open on Sundays, a measure eventually canceled due to low footfall.

I asked Aristides Kazakos, professor of Labour Law in the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, what the law provides for in such extreme circumstances.

“In circumstances like the present ones, all kinds of excesses regarding labor, shifts, the intensity of work pace, etc could be justified,” he explains. “However this is not in effect for all kinds of labor, and not without the necessary prerequisites that constitute these excesses legal and effective in protecting employees. Firstly, there is the issue as to what needs to extend working hours there is, and for how long a period. A second issue is if there is provision for the employees to be protected from over-exposure in conditions of interaction with many customers and if human resilience limits have been exceeded due to excessive intensification of labor pace.”

Was the borderline between extreme circumstances call for emergency action and workers’ rights crossed?

“I am afraid that as to both the aforementioned issues, there were excesses or even evident breaches,” professor Kazakos says. “For example, working over hours while this was not always necessary to serve the imperative needs of society, lack of protective measures for the employees, etc. All these exposed and continue to expose the employees to disproportionate big risks for the additional reason that all excessive labour and the exhaustion it causes simultaneously diminish the human’s immune system resilience.”

GSSE spokesperson told AthensLive there is ample evidence for such breaches of law in specific supermarket chains. GSEE received reports from employees referring to exhausting and unregistered over hours of work and labor intensification. Very importantly -he emphasized to AthensLive- the government has passed an emergency legislative decree (Πράξη Νομοθετικού Περιεχομένου) which gives employers the right to register employees over hours the following month and not in advance. This, in combination with the fact there are no ministerial decrees yet to constitute time cards obligatory for all workplaces (which would register employees working hours automatically), made it almost impossible for labor inspectors to verify a breach of law on the spot. Thus, the government “put in the hands of some very unconscionable employers a very powerful weapon to use it for braking with their legal obligations and getting away with it,” Karageorgopoulos tells AthensLive. “Many of our colleagues worked on their day-off, also without being paid,” he adds. It is clear that these breaches do not refer to all supermarkets and there were chains that respected their employees and their rights.

“I remind of the employers’ duty to abide by the strict law for working time, as the -normatively superior to national- EU law provides for (EU guidelines for working time),” professor Kazakos emphasized.

As monstrous as it gets: Forcing cancer patients to work

While it is perfectly clear that Sophia of the introduction decided by herself not to take the vulnerable people to leave, this was certainly not the case for some of her colleagues in other chains.

“They were subjected not only to pressure but to pure blackmail,” Karageorgopoulos says. “We received reports from colleagues who asked to take the leave the law provides for, either because they did not have where to leave their children (i.e. schools were closed) or because they belong to vulnerable groups, for example, they are cancer patients, and their employers presented them with the alternative of being fired.” The law protected employees from being fired this period, but they could be faced with this prospect in the near future. “So, the employee had to conform. There were colleagues they had cancer patients at home or they were themselves cancer patients and they had to go to work in such a difficult and virus-exposed environment, risking their lives or the lives of their loved ones.” This happened in “many stores, both big and local chains.”

Professor Kazakos is clear: “Employers should also keep the strict health protection rules, for example exempting from work (without depriving them of their wage), employees that have symptoms similar to those of coronavirus ones”.

Never on Sunday

Dimitris Oikonomou highlights a practical aspect as to Sundays’ opening.

“Let aside ideological disagreements, life itself has been proved that society did not respond to open stores on Sundays. In Greece, stores open seven Sundays per year for several years now — and the sales are low. The people, either out of respect for the employees day-off either because they want to support a little store in the neighborhood either because it is not in the Greek culture to go shopping on a Sunday (we prefer to hang out with friends and family) — in any case, the measure has not been effective.”

He also argues this exposes employees to increased health risks. “Is it really rational to close the churches and at the same time keep another closed space going, which is more massive and visited by more age categories? Well, numbers proved again that Sunday did not work.”

According to Oikonomou, the tension was higher on Sundays. Some employees complained that customers “did not think of us, they came to shop on a Sunday.” Customers thought they showed support.

As to opening at 7 am, it seems to be widely believed that “it’s here to stay.” “Do they have any idea what time those leaving should leave home if they come with public transportation to work?” Sophia wonders.

“There is no need for this 7 am opening. Very few people come at that time,” Oikonomou says. “We smelled sneakiness when the Ministry of Development decided to keep this measure, despite being aware of low footfall numbers. Like it wanted to send the message they can change opening hours whenever they want. Furthermore, seriously, on Good Friday you decide at the last minute, with all people in and announce with a tweet that we will stay open for another two hours? This is even more important than Sundays because it seems to me they are trying to make working hours’ notion stretchable and relative, subject to the Ministry’s will. And I repeat this need is not verified by life or society.”

He emphasizes: “We have reached that point where colleagues are asking us if we will work on the 25th March (Greek National Holiday) and on the 1st of May! Everything is called into question.”

How could employees react to all these? They have “all the means to self-reliantly and dynamically demand their legal protection, such as their right to strike with the initiative of their industry’s or sector’s union — or at least of the related Workers Club; their right to collectively or personally withhold their labor — only in this latter case the employee is obliged to pay the wages for the time of labor withholding,” professor Kazakos says. “They can also suggest to their unions to call to a boycott for the specific employer who defies his/her legal or conventional obligations. Of course, because enforcement of their aforementioned rights entails risks, reporting the problem to the authorities in charge, such as the undermined Labour Inspection Corps, and bringing the case to courts are other choices, time-consuming and expensive. A plea to society for a boycott by labor unions could be a more effective means to protect and defend legality, under the current circumstances”.

Shock Doctrine rehearsals

It is interesting, however, that some supermarket owners have in this case reportedly opposed the extended operating hours and openly objected to the Sunday opening. Athens Live accessed an internal email dated 21 March 2020, in which METRO supermarkets chain (My Market) CEO Aristotelis Panteliadis apologizes to the employees “for not succeeding in averting obligatory Sundays opening”, mentioning “it would be our honor to be the only chain to stay closed on Sundays.”

Mr. Panteliadis declined Athens Live an interview calling upon an overburdened schedule.

The government seems to foster a harder stance than some employers, even if one assumes the latter oppose Sundays just because law footfall makes it unprofitable.

Ironically Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has thanked “those in the front line” on twitter, posting an emotion-evoking Civil Protection video praising among other supermarket workers who appear smiley.

Why such a hard stance?

Could the government be imposing as urgent reforms already in its briefcase — only to make these reforms permanent afterward? Professor Kazakos is affirmative:

“Amidst handling people’s widespread fear due to the pandemic –and people, in conditions like the current ones tend to rally around the governor like sheep around the shepherd or the shepherd’s dog– it seems that the government will proceed with the enforcement of the Shock Doctrine. You know, in such circumstances, the mechanisms set forth in the people resemble those of the Stockholm Syndrome. This is why, yes, the Shock Doctrine seems to be the basic biopolitics (and not only that) choice of the government”. However, “soon, New Democracy disastrous management of labor and economic needs will bring anger to replace fear in society”.

Lessons taught. Lessons learned?

One of the quarantines Saturdays, while I was in a pharmacy, an employee from the next-door supermarket stormed in to buy masks. You could tell by his whole posture and tone of voice he was under a stress difficult to contain. “I can’t stand this anymore, it’s crazy,” he muttered under his mask and stormed again out in a hurry, while a long queue was encircling the pavement to enter his workplace.

Reports converge that things are now slowly getting back to normal as to supermarkets’ footfall and the number of goods purchased. Things, however, are not going to be really normal anytime soon, as according to all prophecies financial disaster due to the lockdown is looming.

As the future seems grim, we should at least try to hold on to the lessons this pandemic already taught us. One of them, being we kept afloat thanks to certain employees categories who were asked to hold up the celestial heavens, yet there were no Atlases. We ought to remember that the next time “market forces” would try to treat them with subserviency.

AthensLive

AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store