Business

Asda workers are 'terrified for their jobs'

Protesters outside Asda's headquarters in Leeds
Image caption Protesters outside Asda's Leeds headquarters

Asda staff have spoken of being "terrified" of losing their jobs after the supermarket giant put pressure on them to sign new contracts.

Runcorn store employee Cath Sutton, who has yet to sign, said Asda should be ashamed of the stress it is causing.

The contracts mean unpaid breaks, changes to night shift payments and being called to work at shorter notice.

But as the Saturday deadline neared, Asda softened its stance, saying it did not want staff to leave and regret it.

"Once the closing date has passed, we will write to them again, offering them the opportunity to sign up," said the letter from chief executive Roger Burnley.

The letter added: "We do not want anyone to leave because of the new contract."

'Inflexible' terms

Fewer than 1,000 staff have yet to sign the new contract and its terms bring the company into line with rivals, Asda says.

Most of the 100,000 staff affected will be better off, the letter added.

The GMB union said many staff felt they could not sign the "inflexible" terms because of disruption to domestic life, while the impact would fall heavily on female employees.

"If I sign it, it will affect me because they can move me into any department," Ms Sutton, 76, who has worked for Asda for 45 years, told the Today programme.

"They can move me on to the shop floor, carrying heavy boxes, filling the shelves."

Image copyright Asda
Image caption Cath Sutton cut the ribbon to re-open Runcorn's Asda store in June after an overhaul

"They could change my hours any time from five in the morning to 12 at night."

"I think at my age, why would I be able to start going to different departments and doing different jobs?"

There are plenty of Asda workers who are similarly worried, she says, but are feeling pressured into agreeing the new terms.

"I think the company should be thoroughly, thoroughly ashamed of themselves. It's caused a hell of a lot of stress for people."

"They are having to sign out of desperation because they are terrified of losing their jobs."

Shorter notice

Under the changes, paid breaks will be scrapped, working bank holidays will become compulsory - although festive holidays will be voluntary and paid at double time - and there will be changes to night shift payments.

Neil Derrick, GMB regional officer for Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, said staff would also be forced to attend work at shorter notice, disrupting the life of carers or people doing the school run.

Leeds-based Asda is increasing hourly pay rates. However, Mr Derrick said it was not the money that mattered for many staff, but the inflexibility of the new working patterns.

"Many staff cannot sign because of upheaval to their domestic life. Others have signed just to get them through Christmas or until they can find new jobs," he said.

"I've not met anyone who thinks they will be better off in terms of working life. There will be a disproportionate impact on women."

Mr Derrick said the union would support sacked employees in any legal battle against Asda. Labour's leader Jeremy Corbyn has said he "stands in solidarity" with Asda workers.

'Understand concerns'

This week, Asda announced it would increase employees' basic hourly pay from April, a move that the GMB said shows the supermarket is desperate to woo over disgruntled staff before the deadline.

The supermarket said it would raise its basic rate for its hourly-paid retail employees to £9.18 from 1 April next year, following an increase to £9 from 3 November.

In London, which has an additional allowance to reflect the higher cost of living, basic pay will increase to £10.31 per hour.

The retailer, owned by Walmart, acknowledged this week's annual pay announcement for April rises had come earlier that usual.

An Asda spokesman said the new contract "represents an investment of over £80m and an increase in real pay for over 100,000 of our hourly paid colleagues".

He added: "We have been clear that we don't want any of our colleagues to leave us and whilst the vast majority of colleagues have chosen to sign the new contract, we continue to have conversations with those who have chosen not to, to try and understand their concerns."

While Asda accepted that change was "never easy", it was important that the company adapted to changes in the market and competition, he said.

The company has won backing from former Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King, who used to work at Asda.

He told the BBC that the new retail environment, where the working practices of some online retailers were "almost Victorian", had made life extremely competitive for traditional firms.

"All legacy retailers - and Asda are one - have some legacy arrangements with their workforce which simply don't reflect the modern world that we're in.

"Many online retailers don't pay their workers anywhere near as well as the mainstream retailers," he said.

To compete, it was necessary to take tough decisions. "Sometimes you have to do the right thing for the whole business."


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