The Proper Gander Column from the December 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Supermarket Chain Aldi opened its first British store as long ago as 1990, but it took the recent economic downturn for it to grow into the booming profit-factory we know today. Like Poundland and Primark, Aldi found its strength in an economic climate where we’ve got less disposable income, and have turned to the shops which are flogging things at the lowest prices. Aldi now has 600 stores in Britain, with plans to double this number in the next five years. Meanwhile, comparatively upmarket Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons are closing branches and shelving plans to open more.
Suspicious of how this growth has been achieved, Channel 4’s documentary strand Dispatches went undercover in Aldi’s Supermarket Secrets. Two reporters wearing hidden cameras get jobs as new recruits to Aldi’s army, hoping to find out about its ‘dynamic business model’.
Despite the show’s title promising secrets, Aldi’s strategy is familiar. Punters are drawn in by cheap prices, which are possible through strict cost cutting elsewhere in the business. Obviously, it’s Aldi’s workforce which has to deal with the pressures to increase efficiency and productivity. The employee handbook lists their various time targets, such as scanning 1,200 items through the till each hour, or one every three seconds. A training video tells staff that ‘you dictate the speed of the transaction, not the customer’.
The pace that shelves are stacked is also set by targets, which employees try to meet by chucking loaves of bread into place and climbing on shelves because it’s quicker than fetching a ladder. The speed that workers have to work means that corners are cut and health and safety policies aren’t followed. Three quarters of Aldi’s staff said they had health and safety concerns in a union survey.
Workplace targets tend to be unrealistic in any business, as they are set by managers without enough experience or empathy with how things are on the ground. The higher up in an organisation someone is, the further they are removed from the practicalities they make decisions about. What senior managers can see clearer is the drive to make money.
Even though Aldi says that from 2016 it will pay better wages than any other retailer, staff have been expected to be at work fifteen minutes before their shift starts, which over a year translates as a week of unpaid labour. This is illegal, although, of course, it’s considered acceptable for workers not to be paid back the wealth they create which is creamed off as profits. Aldi’s owners recently enjoyed profits of £260.3million in the UK, but this comes at a cost to its staff.