And while some of the more service-oriented corporations such as banks and auto insurance are emphasizing their online capacity for transactions, many companies are using images of their own workers toiling gamely in factories, or in the case of Walmart and Amazon, tirelessly replenishing the shelves in stores and warehouses. All so we can experience a little “normalcy” during all of this. And for this effort, the companies that profit from these employees’ work imply we should be grateful.
As described in Doug Stephens’ trenchant article written for Business of Fashion:
This has moved companies like Walmart, Amazon and dozens of others to cast their workers as “retail heroes,” extolling their bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of danger. Walmart even produced commercials like this one depicting stoic-looking staff courageously performing their daily tasks (and from the looks of it, free from the “incumbrance” of any personal protective equipment), all the while staring down the viral monster the rest of us cower from. It’s a message designed to pull at the heartstrings and seems a fitting tribute to these brave and selfless souls.
For example, Walmart’s ad extolling the bravery of its workers is below, to the tune of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
But while the corporations producing these ads have a vested financial interest in glamorizing the fact that their workers are continuing to shovel profits into the gaping maw of their bottom lines, the reality for the actual employees being lionized by their own companies as “heroes,” as Stephens points out, is quite different.
Having worked in and around the retail industry for over 30 years and having also been personally responsible for the well being of hundreds of frontline retail staff, I can tell you that they didn’t sign up to be heroes. They don’t spring out of bed each morning driven by a sense of higher purpose to pack your groceries, stock your pantry or deliver your meal. They didn’t take a Hippocratic oath to ensure you don’t run out of toothpaste. They’re doing it because they have to. Because they depend on the income their work pays. They’re doing it because most of them don’t have a month of living expenses in the bank and even fewer could secure a loan to bridge a gap.
This is not, as Stephens points out, in any way meant to disparage the workers themselves or to afford them anything less than respect, recognition, and admiration for what they’re doing—many in the face of serious danger. They are in fact risking their lives by continuing to work, and we benefit from that work. But it’s not because they have any pretensions of “heroism” during a deadly pandemic. (Just take a quick glimpse into the eyes of your checkout person at the grocery store and ask yourself if she—and it’s usually a “she”—looks like she’s feeling particularly heroic.). It’s because they have no choice in a country that has steadfastly refused to pay a living wage, and one that ties its healthcare coverage, for the most part, to continued full-time employment.
The minute we accept the corporate framing of these workers as selfless heroes, Stephens says, we lose sight of the reality, a reality that is exactly what corporate America hopes we forget:
Retail workers are not heroes but victims; victims of a system that has aggressively suppressed their wages, stripped them of rights and protections and commoditised their work. Most retail workers are woefully underpaid, under-benefited and treated as interchangeable parts in the global retail machine. They are working out of deep necessity, with far too many clinging to incomes that keep them just above the threshold of poverty or, in some cases, living well below it.
And these companies that cheerfully shove their minimum wage-paid workers into the front lines—like dropping them into a horrific public petri dish so their executives and officers can sit safely at home tending to their rosy-cheeked children—have a decidedly mixed record of recognizing the work their so-called heroes actually do. As Stephens says of this latest marketing tactic: “It may have sounded brilliant in the conference room of a Madison Avenue advertising agency but on the ground it’s just more corporate bullshit.”
[R]etailers like Amazon and Walmart, which now exalt the indispensability and courage of their frontline people, are the very same companies that have spent decades busting labour unions; unions that have sought not much more than a living wage and safe working conditions for their members. In fact, in the very midst of the current crisis, Amazon fired one of its “heroes.” His name is Chris Smalls, a warehouse worker who organised a walkout to protest unsafe working conditions in one of Amazon’s warehouses. (According to Amazon, Smalls was terminated for endangering others by violating social distancing guidelines.) It’s worth noting that Smalls was hardly the first Amazon employee to raise concerns about working conditions in Amazon warehouses.
The Walton family, which owns Walmart, owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of all Americans combined. In fact, it gets $100 million richer every day during “normal” times, and more money in a single minute than most of its workers make in an entire year. The Walton Family trust donated $25 million (equivalent to two hours of a typical day’s haul for the family) towards COVID-19 relief thus far, but as Robert Reich characterized it to the Guardian, this is essentially “self-serving rubbish” in light of its real-world anti-worker practices.
Walmart’s booming sales have caused it to hire more than 100,000 workers over the past three weeks. But the firm failed to implement social distancing for two weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced guidelines on 16 March. Several workers have died. Most still don’t have access to gloves, masks or hand sanitizer. They don’t get paid sick leave, not even at stores where employees have contracted the virus.
Stephens suggests if you really care about the workers who are making our lives infinitely more livable right now at enormous risk to their own lives, don’t just sit back and marvel at their bravery. If the company really thinks they’re heroes, then they should be paid and treated as such. Call your politicians and demand that they legislate better pay and working conditions for them. Don’t patronize organizations that abuse or mistreat their workers, and hold those accountable that do. These people are bravely working in conditions that most of us are able to avoid. But don’t fall for the sticky sweet illusion, spun by these corporate behemoths, that their workers are acting as willing, selfless heroes in the furtherance of their brands.
They’re not. They’re working because they absolutely have to.