'We'll be fighting tooth and nail for our members'

Unite vows to fight to redeploy all members after Sainsbury’s announces 3,500 job cuts

Reading time: 6 min

Even those considered the safest jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic are not immune to being cut, after major supermarket retailer Sainbury’s today (November 5) announced an astonishing 3,500 job losses.

Sainbury’s said the majority of the jobs – 3,000 — would go from the 420 Argos stores it plans to close by March 2024, with an additional 500 jobs being slashed from the retailer’s fish, meat and deli counters in May next year.

Unite represents the affected staff working on counters, which have been closed since March when the pandemic first hit and which Sainbury’s said will now close permanently.

The jobs cuts come as Sainsbury’s posted half-year results showing a £137m loss in the six months to September, compared to a £9m profit over the same period last year. Despite a surge in grocery and Argos-led sales of 8.2 per cent and 7.4 per cent respectively, this was not enough to offset losses fuelled by a drop in petrol and clothing sales. Overall sales dropped by 1.4 per cent.

Still, Sainsbury’s underlying half-year profits were much higher than analysts expected at £301m, up from £238m last year. Just like rivals Tesco and Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s announced too that it would paying out shareholder dividends – even as they now benefit to the tune of hundreds of millions from a massive business rate holiday.  

Unite Sainsbury’s senior shop steward Neelam Verma told UniteLIVE she was saddened by the news of job cuts but said she wasn’t entirely surprised.

“I’ve worked for Sainsbury’s for 18 years and when I first joined 140 colleagues were working in my store – now it’s down to 85. Over this time, those colleagues who have left or been cut have not been replaced and since then we’re being asked to do more and more with fewer resources.

“When we signed a new contract in 2017, we were asked to be experts in three different areas in the shop. Now it’s even more than that. They’re stretching us to breaking point. It creates a massive mental strain on colleagues – this level of stress has a huge effect on customer service.”

Neelam said she believed that Sainsbury’s was failing to “look at the bigger picture” and was more concerned with its shareholders than its customers and staff – these latest job cuts, she said, are part of this pattern.

“It’s very sad that on the one hand they’re announcing closures of the fish, meat and deli counters and Argos stores, and then on the other hand you see they’ve had a huge increase in grocery, online and Argos sales – it shows they’re only in it for the money. They’re not in it for the people. You’re only a number to them.”

This attitude has also been reflected in the way Sainsbury’s has aggressively adopted technologies such as self-checkout and smart shopping – to the detriment of many of its customers.

“Our elderly customers in particular – many of whom live alone – will go into a store just so they can talk to someone,” Neelam explained. “Especially at this time during lockdown, so many people have nowhere to go and no one to talk to, and a supermarket can be their only outlet.

“While Sainsbury’s relentlessly pushes these new technologies, they shed staff numbers. Those who are left are under such mental stress from massive workloads that we don’t have the time to spend with our customers. In the process Sainsbury’s loses that vital link with their communities and with society.

 “We know Sainsbury’s is a business and has to make money but at the same time they need to value their colleagues and value our labour,” Neelam added.  “And of course these job losses – as is the case across the retail sector – will disproportionately affect women and Black and Asian ethnic minority (BAEM) people. Instead of giving back to the society that has made them so successful Sainsbury’s is actively bringing it harm.”

Commenting on the job cuts, Sainsbury’s chief executive Simon Roberts said today that the company will “work hard to find alternative roles for as many of these colleagues as possible and expect to be able to offer alternative roles for the majority of impacted colleagues”.

For Neelam, this is where Unite has a vital role to play.

“As Unite reps and shop stewards, we’ll be fighting tooth and nail for members,” she said. “We know our stores intimately – how many total working hours are in our individual stores and who is leaving due to retirement, returning to university or leaving for other personal reasons. We’re going to do our homework to ensure that every single member can be redeployed in some way.”

Unite national officer for the food industry Bev Clarkson agreed, and called on Sainsbury’s to work with Unite to ensure no Sainsbury’s worker is left without a job.

“This is very disappointing news for our 500 members working on the deli, fish and meat counters,” she said.

“We are seeking urgent talks with the management to explore deployment opportunities within Sainsbury’s, given the supermarket’s sales have risen since the first lockdown in March.

“Hopefully, the supermarket can reopen some of these counters, closed since March, once the Covid-19 restrictions are eased and a vaccine comes on stream,” Clarkson added.

“Sainsbury’s needs to engage more constructively with Unite going forward as this news came ‘out of the blue’ without the detailed consultations we would expect from such an established and well-known company.

“This is very grim news for our members and their families in the run-up to Christmas, and we will be giving them maximum support during this worrying and uncertain time.”

By Hajera Blagg

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