No Returns: retail worker insecurity in the context of COVID-19

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Pedestrians on a high street © Photo by RonPorter via Pixabay

COVID-19’s impact on the economy has been highly sector specific. With 42% of the industry’s workers placed on furlough, and a series of established brands planning redundancies, it is already becoming clear that there will be fewer jobs in retail as a result of this crisis. For a host of reasons however, retail workers have been subject to increasing insecurity over a number of years now. Our recent report - No Returns - analysed the patterns that been driving this trend, and how they are now interacting with new patterns of working caused by COVID-19.

Retail is a key source of employment within the UK’s economy. With 2.8 million workers, it is the UK’s largest private sector workforce. But too many of its workforce experience job insecurity. Our analysis of the Labour Force Survey found:

  • Full time workers earn on average £135 less per week than those in other sectors
  • Almost half or the retail workforce - 48% - are employed on a part-time basis, compared to 26.5% across the UK
  • 24.8% of retail workers are subject to fluctuations in their weekly working hours
  •  5.2% of retail workers are on temporary contracts - up from 3.3% in 2019

In many ways, COVID-19 has exacerbated the issues contributing to worker insecurity in the retail sector. Crucially, as renewed concerns about the risk of infection in the UK hit the headlines, our analysis found that more than 400,000 retail workers in lower paid roles, will be ineligible for sick pay if they are unwell or need to self-isolate.

Additionally, the trend of increasing online sales that has been gathering pace over recent years sharply accelerated during lockdown. Online sales shot up to over 30% of all sales when national lockdown occurred in March. Sales within non-food retail were down by 41.7% during this period. Given that the chances of city centre retail returning to pre-lockdown conditions over the short term appear remote, the prospect of significant job losses across high street retailers appears likely. Indeed, many such job losses have already been announced.

The nature of these challenges and insecurities affect different groups of workers in discrete ways. Over the last decade, the number of retail jobs held by women, fell by 55,544, while the number of men working in the sector increased slightly. This pattern appears set to hasten as warehouse and logistics jobs become more prevalent within the sector - roles most often roles occupied by men.

Younger people too, face specific employment challenges in the sector going forward. People aged 30 and under make up a higher proportion of the retail workforce than the average across other sectors - at 9.8% compared to 3.5%. Our analysis found that two thirds of retail workers under 25 would not be entitled to redundancy pay if they were laid off. In this event, displaced workers will have less work experience to draw from in seeking new employment and are at risk of sustained periods of time out of work.

In addressing this growing insecurity, we recommend:

  •  The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme should be extended to support businesses and workers affected by local lockdown measures in the future.
  • The Government should look to introduce more substantial staff retention subsidies to mitigate the immediate threat of retail workers losing their jobs
  •  The National Retraining Scheme should be rapidly expanded beyond its initial pilot areas to support retail workers to develop their skills and access employment opportunities in other sectors in the future
  • The forthcoming Employment Bill should be used to introduce genuine ‘two way flexibility’ for retail workers, including the opportunity for retail workers on part-time contracts to revisit their agreed working hours and patterns with their employer at regular intervals.

The pandemic’s impact on the retail sector has been seismic and is very likely to be permanent. As the sector further evolves in response to the pandemic, it is vital we consider support measures for retail workers facing acute insecurity today, and the longer-term interventions required to help retail workers transition into new roles in the future, whether within retail or in different sectors altogether. For the full detail on our analysis and policy recommendations, read the full report, here. And to hear the Work Foundation’s Director, Ben Harrison, outline the report’s findings on BBC Radio Four’s You and Yours programme, click here.


  • covid19
  • insecurity
  • job-insecurity
  • retail
  • Workforce


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