Retail Jobs Don’t Have to Suck

During the chaos of the Holiday Season, the plight of the retail worker is easily forgotten; for their efforts, they get no extra compensation and no guarantee of job stability. But a recent story at The Nation provided a nice reminder of how vital retail workers are to our economy, and how poorly ours are treated in relation to our Western European counterparts.

Comparing and contrasting the retail environments of Western Europe and the US, the story details some key differences between the two — differences, it argues, that have long-ranging effects.

“In France and Germany, the retail industry offers living-wage union jobs, with stable schedules and comprehensive training programs — not because their bosses are saints, but because they apply a business model that prioritizes job quality above maximizing hours and cutting costs.”

By contrast, the story notes, US companies treat retail employees as “disposable, interchangeable widgets, and pay accordingly cheap wages,” which ultimately “[degrades] the real value of their labor [and] pushes the workforce into a precarious cycle of economic insecurity, as well as high turnover.”

And while a high turnover rate is theoretically cost-effective — it saves employers on benefit programs and wage increases — it also forces companies to train more employees, which is expensive, and keeps morale at the same discounted rate as the product.

European retailers, on the other hand, “see a business’s value as a function of how much it invests in cultivating a productive, content workforce,” the story says, and by doing so, have made “retail jobs decent jobs, even good careers.”

Because silver linings, however, the story does offer some ways the US could improve the sector for its workers, starting with the ability to unionize. Currently, the “worker-led campaigns” that are acting as unions for places like Walmart and H&M aren’t “formal unions,” which hasn’t led to the impact seen in Europe. A formalization process, however, could change that, the story argues.

“Retail jobs only become dead-end jobs in the absence of a social movements pushing multinational business and policymakers in the right direction. As other countries have shown, a workplace is only as good for workers as the politics of the community surrounding it.”

You can read more about it at The Nation.

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  • Josh Lee

    Does Reed Nelson have a blog or anything? I always appreciate his posts.