Briefing: Low pay in the supermarket sector

Supermarket employees have been relied on throughout the coronavirus pandemic – a significant part of the army of key workers that has kept the economy going, often facing health risks in the process. Meanwhile, British supermarkets have enjoyed very strong financial performance throughout 2020 as we’ve all spent much more time at home, with record sales recorded in December.

That strong financial performance, alongside the crucial role that supermarket employees have played during this crisis, casts these employees’ low pay levels in a harsher light than ever. In this briefing we detail the make-up of the supermarket sector and the pay and working hours that employees in it experience. We find that in April 2020, almost half (45 per cent) of the 900,000-strong supermarket employee workforce earned below the real Living Wage – the only UK wage rate rooted in what it costs to live. In addition, we show that underemployment among supermarket employees – which is consistently well above average – rose in the pandemic despite rising sales and demand for supermarket services.

As people across the UK enter another lockdown, we are once again relying on the contributions of supermarket employees and other essential workers. Coronavirus should prompt Britain to rethink how it values this workforce, with a first step being employers in essential sectors paying the Living Wage to all staff.