‘I make my own masks at home’: Cashiers brave the front line in virus-wracked France
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While the French public has been ordered to stay home amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic, the vast majority of supermarket cashiers, most of them women on meagre salaries, have continued to work the tills – performing a vital role even as their health is put at risk.
By the time President Emmanuel Macron had declared France “at war” with coronavirus in a sombre address last Monday, 40-year-old Joanna, a cashier at a supermarket in Brittany, had already braved the “invisible enemy’s” first assaults.
In the hours preceding Macron’s March 16 address, as rumours of an impending lockdown swirled across the country, supermarkets like Joanna’s had been stormed by wave after wave of anxious shoppers on a panic-buying spree, stripping shelves of most supplies from toilet paper to rice and pasta.
“It was almost impossible to walk down the aisles, and then people had to queue for an hour before reaching the till,” she tells FRANCE 24, recalling a long queue that meandered along the full stretch of the store. “By the end of the day, most shelves had been completely emptied.”
Along with other colleagues, Joanna had volunteered to work that day, anticipating the rush. She worked longer hours, cut her lunch break to the bare minimum and then volunteered for the next day as well – even as Macron ordered a nationwide lockdown in an increasingly frantic effort to stave off a rapidly worsening pandemic.
Who’s essential now?
Although the French government has ordered the public to stay at home, stopping work is not an option for cashiers who generally live on the minimum wage – nor is it possible for them to work from home.
As is often the case in such crises, the strain and the risk fall disproportionately on those employees with the most precarious jobs –professions that are routinely belittled, until governments and the public realise they are in fact “essential”. In the case of supermarket cashiers, a sector that accounts for 150,000 full-time equivalent workers, 90 percent are women.
At Joanna’s workplace, a Super U located near the city of Rennes, workers with young children have been allowed to stay home and those with pre-existing conditions are on paid sick leave. But elsewhere in France, there have been reports of staff on short-term contracts being ordered to return to work no matter what.
“Our manager is conscious of the risks and has tried hard to get us protection,” says Joanna, whose children, aged 10 and 11, are old enough to stay alone at home while she and her husband are out working, though she has to get their home-schooling ready before setting off.
She notes that conditions at the store have changed significantly since that manic Monday. The store now closes an hour earlier and measures are in place to ease crowding. A security guard organises people in well-spaced queues outside the premises, with priority access given to the elderly, disabled and healthcare workers.
The day after Macron’s address, plexiglass shields were in place to protect Joanna and her colleagues. Gloves and hand gels were also available, but it would take another four days for the first supplies of face masks to arrive, amid a nationwide shortage that has also left doctors dangerously exposed.
“I’ve been making my masks from home because those handed out by the company are painful to wear,” says Joanna. “They only last two hours, but I keep a box with me so that I can change them when needed.”
Colleagues who restock shelves have also been handed protective gear, “but many don’t wear them because the gloves soon tear and the masks make it hard to breathe,” she adds. “This week they’ve been moved to evening shifts, so that they are no longer in contact with customers.”
Despite the protective measures, Joanna is well aware of the threat of contagion she and her colleagues are exposed to.
“Stopping certain habits, such as scratching my face or flicking aside unruly hair strands, hardly comes naturally,” she explains, noting that she now keeps her hair tied in a bun at all times. Developing such reflexes –known in France as “barrier gestures” – is especially hard when the work is both physically and mentally draining.
Respecting safe distances also involves a rethink of the way cashiers’ stations are aligned.
“One of my colleagues refused to work with staggered back-to-back stations, whereby customers walk just behind our backs,” Joanna says. “So we reduced the number of tills to ensure they are spaced out and all face the same way.”
At other supermarkets, where protective measures are dangerously lacking, cashiers have been forced to erect cardboard barriers or wrap their stations in cling film. Sometimes, mindless shoppers peer over the makeshift barriers to address staff, thereby defeating their very purpose.
Changing customers’ habits in the age of coronavirus is a whole different challenge, Joanna notes.
“There are clearly two types of customers. Those who are conscious of the risks and shop only once for the whole week and those who just come to spend time at the store,” she says. “Some come every day, or several times a day, each time for a trifle. I had someone buy just two sticks of butter this morning.”
She adds: “Who am I to tell them to stay home? What would really be effective is having police patrols who hand out fines to those who don’t buy food for several days.”
‘For months, doctors were teargassed in the streets. Today they are heroes'
Since the start of the lockdown, Joanna and her colleagues have received numerous words of encouragement and thanks from customers, a heartwarming change for a profession that is particularly exposed to indifference.
“Sometimes, through these exchanges, we get to know other people’s jobs and can thank them too,” she says, citing doctors, hauliers, street cleaners and “those who simply shop for a relative or a neighbour who is housebound”.
The Super U management has thanked staff in a Facebook post that was later printed out and taped on the supermarket’s walls, but has offered little else in terms of gratitude and appreciation.
Joanna, who has worked at the shop for 15 years and earns the minimum wage for a 30-hour working week, is waiting to hear whether she too will benefit from a €1,000 bonus announced by other supermarket chains, after the government encouraged companies to hand out one-off bonuses free of tax.
“When it comes to the government, I don’t feel like thanking them,” Joanna adds. “They knew what was coming and yet they failed to anticipate it. And, above all, they sent contradictory messages, like ‘stay at home, but don’t forget to go working’.”
Her thoughts go to the health workers whose struggle against the worsening pandemic is being saluted – “and rightly so” – across France.
“Only a few months ago they were teargassed for daring to rally in the streets,” she says, referring to recent strikes and protests by doctors at France’s cash-strapped hospitals. “But today they are our heroes.”
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