The human cost of ‘feeding the nation’: Covid challenges and food retailing in the UK

  • Abbie Winton (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationResearch


This paper aims to analyse the contemporary challenges facing supermarket work that has been prompted by the Coronavirus pandemic. Retail work has long had a deteriorating portfolio of employment relations (Grugulis and Bozkurt 2011), with increasing levels of non-standard, low-paid and intensified working arrangements. Although considered relatively ‘mundane’, retail work is annually punctuated by peaks of consumer demand with characteristics of extreme work (Bozkurt 2015). To accommodate this, retail work tends to be organised in a way that can be scaled to respond to temporal fluctuations in demand. The Coronavirus crisis prompted a similar response, yet this time the emphasis was on virus prevention and the rapid upscale of the dotcom capacity across the sector. As these ‘extreme’ working practices extended throughout the year, capturing the experiences of workers is critical (Cai et al. 2020). Therefore, this paper aims to highlight continuities and discontinuities – examining both the new challenges presented by the crisis, as well as the systemic problems in the sector which have been exacerbated over the past year. This paper presents analysis from in-depth interviews with trade union officials and supermarket employees, which were carried out between 2019-2021. Follow-up interviews were conducted with respondents interviewed before the crisis to highlight their lived experiences and perceptions of how the sector and working practices have changed. The timing of these interviews provided a foundation for a better understanding of how the challenges presented within the sector evolved throughout the crisis, shaped largely by decisions made by employers, negotiations with trade unions and expectations from the public that supermarkets would continue to ‘feed the nation’. This research finds that supermarket employees have been subject to increased threats to their health and safety (both physically and mentally) and anxieties surrounding government measures. Workers have been expected to manage customer relations in a highly pressured and dangerous environment, on top of the daily challenges associated with going out to work while the rest of the nation was being told to ‘stay at home’ with arguably little renumeration for their contributions. The national narrative deified supermarket workers, yet there lacked evidence to suggest that these notions of value were materialising in terms of any real improvement to the lived experiences of these workers (Winton and Howcroft 2020). Rather, there were clear instances where the work offered was becoming increasingly precarious and subject to more punitive demands than before the crisis. Therefore, this paper pays particular attention to these conflicting narratives, concluding with concerns surrounding how the situation could transpire when the spotlight is no longer on the sector. References Bozkurt, Ö. (2015). The punctuation of mundane jobs with extreme work: Christmas at the supermarket deli counter. Organization, 22(4), pp.476–492. Cai, M. et al. (2020). ‘It’s Like a War Zone’: Jay’s Liminal Experience of Normal and Extreme Work in a UK Supermarket during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Work, Employment and Society. Grugulis, I. and Bozkurt, Ö. (2011). Why retail demands a closer look. In Ö. Bozkurt & I. Grugulis, eds. Retail Work. Critical Perspectives on Work and Employment. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan UK. Winton, A. and Howcroft, D. (2020). What COVID-19 tells us about the value of human labour. Policy@Manchester. Available from:
PeriodJul 2021
Event titleBritish Universities Industrial Relations Association Conference
Event typeConference