The 51%

Women on the front line (2/3): Cashiers face 'warlike' conditions working under Covid-19

Supermarket cashiers are more than ever on the frontline as France enters its 7th week in lockdown.
Supermarket cashiers are more than ever on the frontline as France enters its 7th week in lockdown. © Pascal Guyot, AFP

With the Covid-19 pandemic and most French workers being asked to stay at home, supermarket cashiers are more than ever on the front lines as France enters its seventh week in lockdown. The profession, which is 90 percent female, has proven to be essential. But what price do they pay for being behind the till? 


Since the beginning of the lockdown, it is estimated that some 25 percent of French workers are heading into their workplace, according to a survey for France Info. Véronique, 55, is one of them. A supermarket cashier for almost 20 years, she does not plan to stay at home while there is work: "We have a knot in our stomach but we go in regardless.”

In her store in the small town of Carqueiranne in south-eastern France, she explains that protective equipment has been brought in but not everything is usable. 

"We tried the peaked masks but they are painful, then there’s the issue of fogging -- if you have glasses, you see nothing,” she told FRANCE 24.

Improvisation and disparity

Since the start of the lockdown, recommended hygiene rules have been applied differently across retail stores. 

For example, plexiglass windows installed to protect cashiers do not always encircle their cash register, despite cashiers having the most contact with customers. As for gloves, they are optional, their use being disputed by scientists. It is the same for ensuring how many shoppers come through the door at the same time, with the number varying from one shop to another.

Amid conflicting messages as to what are the best protective measures against the virus, it is not surprising that workers are confused.

"We wear a mask but we keep it for several days,” Veronique said. When asked when she last changed her mask, she replied with a laugh: "I couldn't even tell you."

This lack of coherence has outraged union representatives. "We asked them to standardise protective measures, but some large companies tell us that each manager is entitled to do as he or she wishes in their store," said Sylvie Vachoux, the federal secretary representing the retail sector for the CGT union. 

On March 18, the secretary general of the CFDT union, Laurent Berger, declared companies were not abiding by the rules, referring to the lack of equipment but also flexibility for mothers who were required to stay at home because of school closures without fear of losing their jobs.

In any case, the risk of contracting Covid-19 continues to exist for retail workers. On March 27, a 52-year-old cashier from the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis died from the virus. Since lockdown came into effect on March 17, “the cashiers have been on the front line without protection, just like being in a trench during a war without ammunition", said Vachoux.

'We sometimes see the same customer four times a day'

Leïla, a cashier at a hypermarket in Nice, told FRANCE 24 that there were large numbers of customers coming to shop each day. "I see some customers coming in the morning to buy fruit, returning in the early afternoon to get some cheese and then come back to buy vegetables and pasta in the evening," she said.

They are making unnecessary purchases, the 43-year-old cashier explained: “We keep telling them that we get deliveries every day and there would be no shortages if they did not buy so much. I wonder where they are storing all of that food.”

According to the market research firm Nielsen, the retail sector saw a massive increase of 237 percent in sales on March 16, the day before France went into lockdown.

The stress surrounding the pandemic has meant cashiers find themselves often dealing with rude customers. "People are so stressed, it's very, very hard," Véronique said.

She spoke about what happened to one of her colleagues. "A customer arrived and refused to put his purchases on the counter, objecting that he did not want them to be contaminated. My colleague replied that she cleans it often, as she uses it all day long. In return, the guy said ‘Well, you’re going to get it anyway." 

Despite the stress and fear of contamination, Veronique works almost every day, putting in at least 43 hours a week.

This article has been translated from the original in French by Annette Young.


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