From Bonuses To Bogus Dismissal: The UK’s Biggest Brands Respond To COVID-19

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We’re now two weeks into lockdown, and it’s no surprise that most of us Brits are already gagging for a pub trip and pint. However, you may want to think carefully about where you’ll be going to purchase said pint when the restrictions lift. How our country’s biggest chains have treated their workforces since the outbreak of coronavirus has fallen under the spotlight of public scrutiny, and what has been revealed is that all too many of them have missed the mark. While they have now u-turned on their payment policy due to public pressure, many will be disappointed to hear that national favourite Wetherspoons initially told workers they would not receive any pay until the government paid the chain, leaving their 40,000 members of staff with no indication of when their next pay date might be. CEO Tim Martin described the shut down as ‘over the top’, and encouraged concerned workers to apply for jobs at Tesco while the pubs were closed. 

Staff sitting side by side in the ASOS warehouse canteen (Image: Guardian, 30th March)

Pub retailer and brewer Greene King, however, have demonstrated how a company can respond to such a crisis with fairness and compassion. They have guaranteed that workers will be paid in full up until the 5th of April, and that they will receive 80% of their average wages through the government scheme beyond that. They have also told their tenants that charges including rent and licensing fees will be indefinitely postponed, with their CEO taking a 50% pay cut and their executive board a 30% cut in order to make these concessions possible. Fuller’s have made similar allowances, with their main board of directors having each taken a voluntary 25% pay cut. It will, of course, be our country’s independent pubs that will have been hit the hardest by the shut down, so when their doors finally reopen to the public I’d encourage everyone to show some support by taking their business there. 

While a virtual shopping spree might be a tempting lockdown leisure activity, you might want to think twice before you give online retailers your cash, since many of them have been called upon to close their warehouses. ASOS have been accused of endangering their workers by continuing to expect them to come into work, with some staff claiming that their warehouses are too crowded for social distancing guidelines to be feasibly observed. There have even been reports that the company have called in extra staff to cope with the increased demand brought on by their weekend sale, and that staff are not permitted to wear facemasks as it breaches their uniform policy. Workers at Pretty Little Thing described a similar situation, criticising a shortage of hand sanitiser and claiming keeping a safe distance from others to be ‘impossible’ within their warehouse. Both companies, however, deny these reports, and a visit to the ASOS site by Barnsley Council concluded that appropriate safety measures were in fact being enforced.

Turning to the highstreet, the poor treatment of employees is all too easy to find. Philip Green’s retail group, Arcadia – the company that owns brands like Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, and Evans & Burton – is now using the Government’s job retention scheme, but many staff claim they were laid off before the scheme was announced, often without redundancy pay. The company has also halted pension payments indefinitely in an effort to conserve cash. Sports Direct initially attempted to keep their stores open, forcing their thousands of employees to go against government advice by leaving their homes. They argued that because their sports equipment allows people to exercise at home, they were aiding the health and fitness of the public, and so should be considered an ‘essential service’. This concern for public health was soon shown to be dubious however, since many of the workout items available from their website have since seen significant price hikes, sometimes in excess of 50%. Refreshingly, The Body Shop stands out among other high street stores; they have once again cemented their reputation as a cruelty-free company that cares by donating thousands of products to NHS workers and providing their staff with adequate payment, information and support. 

Making sure that every one of us gets what we need amid the panicked pasta purchasing and toilet paper stockpiling mayhem we have seen in recent weeks can be no easy feat, so it’s good to hear that supermarket staff – who are working tirelessly to provide for us in a calm, fair and organised way – are in many cases being aptly rewarded by their employers. Morrisons say they expect their staff bonuses to increase to up to £1050 this year; Asda have announced that all their staff will get an extra week’s pay as a bonus in June; Sainsburys, Aldi and Tesco are all paying their employees a 10% bonus, and M&S employees will receive an extra 15%.

A Tesco cashier in London behind a screen, wearing a mask and gloves. (Image: Yahoo Finance UK / PA)

Many supermarkets have also responded to the increase in sales they have experienced in this time of peril by donating significant sums to charity. Waitrose and Partners are donating ‘comfort items’ such as pillows, phone chargers, eye masks, and hand cream to hospitals. Lidl have donated £100,000 to charity, and Asda and Morrisons have donated £5million and £10million worth of stock to food banks respectively. The Co-op have donated £1.5million to foodbanks, and pledged a further £4.5million to local charities, as well as working to ensure that the children who attend their academies aren’t left hungry by school closures by providing a £20 food voucher to each student for every week schools are unexpectedly shut.

In an effort to equip us with the knowledge we need to ‘shop smarter’ and give our money to the businesses who deserve it once the outbreak has subsided, communication and graphic design freelancer Lewis Cotter has compiled an A-Z inventory of companies’ responses. This valuable resource is ever-growing, with Lewis adding information on new companies or adding updates to existing entries almost daily. He consistently provides links to the sources on which he bases his reports, and his work has informed the majority of this article.

If you’d like to view the most recently updated version of Lewis’ list (which I would highly recommend!), or if you’d like to contribute any information you have about how a brand has behaved, you can visit his website here.

Image: A graffitied response to Wetherspoon’s treatment of their staff on one of their pubs in Crystal Palace, Croydon (The Metro / PA)