Designed to help the high street, it would instead hurt a group who are already more likely to be living in poverty, says Guardian columnist Frances Ryan
Going shopping makes Mike Adams feel “very disabled”. He says: “I can go into a shop and be made to feel invisible. There’s an apprehension. Staff are unsure of engaging with me so they swerve the conversation altogether.”
Tough times on the high street mean the big retail chains are crying out for customers, yet Adams – the founder of Purple, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes the spending power of the UK’s near 14 million disabled people – argues that shops are badly serving a £249bn market.
Adams was behind this week’s “Purple Tuesday”, which saw stores and shopping centres festooned in the signature colour of the disability rights movement.
Purple’s initial target was to get 50 companies to each make a new long-term commitment to improving the experience of disabled shoppers. But by the time the day itself came around, that figure had reached 700.
The event was designed to “demonstrate to retailers that there are things that can be done at no cost” and to “start some momentum for businesses to see disabled people as, first and foremost, customers,” says Adams.
Asda, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, as well as Hammerson and LandSec, the owners of shopping malls including the Bullring in Birmingham and Bluewater in Kent, were among the big names involved.
Hundreds of thousands of shop workers received training via a specially devised customer service video. Other new commitments included to host “quiet hours” in stores, add “not every disability is visible” signs and to run accessible facilities checks.
Nearly one in five people in the UK has a disability or impairment, and more than half of households have a connection to someone with a disability.
As part of Purple Tuesday the organisers asked firms to conduct accessibility audits in stores and on their websites, and to appoint internal “disability champions” to raise issues at a board level in big firms.
Adams, who is able to walk short distances but relies on a wheelchair, says physical access remains an issue for him. “I never go on the tube [in London] because not all the stations have lifts. Many stores have wheelchair access now, which is great, but it’s when you get inside the difficulties can start, with crowded layouts making it very difficult to get around without damaging anything.”
Plenty of people may not have heard of the retail firm Shop Direct. Its roots go back to the distant heyday of catalogue shopping, and two giants of that era, Littlewoods and Great Universal Stores. Now it is the parent company behind the online fashion brand Very and the reinvented Littlewoods.com. All this may sound innocuous enough. But in two areas of Greater Manchester, Shop Direct is newly notorious.
Until now, what the modern corporate vernacular calls “fulfilment” – in other words, packing up people’s orders and seeing to returns – has been dealt with at three Shop Direct sites, in Chadderton and Shaw, near Oldham, and in Little Hulton, three miles south of Bolton. But the company now has plans to transfer all such tasks to a “fully automated”, 500,000 sq ft “distribution and returns centre” located in a logistics park in the east Midlands. The compulsory consultation period begins tomorrow, and the shopworkers’ union Usdaw and local politicians are up in arms: if it happens in full, the move will entail the loss of 1,177 full-time posts, and 815 roles currently performed by agency workers; on the new site there will only be jobs for about 500 people. At a time when apparently low unemployment figures blind people to the fragility and insecurity of so much work, the story is a compelling straw in the wind: probably the starkest example I have yet seen of this era of automation, and the disruption and pain it threatens.
The consumers in the West wish for products at a reasonable cost, but give no thought regarding their manufacture, for if they did, they would realise the wages the workers received.
Investigations such as these by NGO China Labor Watch bring this information to the attention of Western consumers together with descriptions relating to the working conditions and the hours worked.
We in the West could do more to stop these practices by boycotting the products, this would show these workers that we do care. However, this could mean instead of improving their conditions the employers could just stop production, which would then mean the workers would lose the pittance that they now receive.
So, alternately, we could make a combined effort to bring these practices to the attention of the ruling authorities in a way that they will have to take action.
[…] An investigation with the US-based NGO China Labor Watch reveals that toys including Barbie, Thomas the Tank Engine and Hot Wheels were made by staff earning as little as 86p an hour.
Overtime can run to nearly three times the legal limit. In some factories – including one producing Happy Meal toys for McDonald’s from the new DreamWorks movie Trolls – that means some are on 12-hour shifts and have to work with hazardous chemicals.
According to China Labor Watch, the world of toys may be heaven for children, but it is a world of misery for toy factory workers.
The group’s founder and executive director, Li Qiang, said: “We can’t tolerate that children’s dreams are based on workers’ nightmares, and we must fight against the unfair oppression of workers who manufacture toys.”
Undercover investigators infiltrated four factories, and the group shared wage slips…
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The problems that finally killed off British Home Stores could easily apply to other department stores we regard as institutions