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’Tis the season to be exploited: retail workers face busy, stressful holidays

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Millions of Americans are flocking to stores and malls across the US on Black Friday in an annual mass shopping spree that has become almost as traditional as the Thanksgiving dinner that precedes it.

But as throngs of shoppers kick off the holiday season of consumerism, there is a huge impact on retail and delivery workers who become busier than ever and face workplace pressures that can harm their health and safety.

At Walmart, the largest retailer in the US, John Freeman, a Walmart associate in Dillon, South Carolina, for over four years, explained that every year starting around Thanksgiving through Christmas things start to get worse for workers. Their workloads increase significantly, attitudes of management and customers worsen, and work scheduling becomes more rigid, as workers get squeezed to prepare for sale events, for an influx of customers, keeping shelves stocked, and cleaning.

“Workloads are strenuous. You have all this stuff that has to go out and it’s just been piling on. We don’t have many people in the store where I work and we’re doing five jobs at a time, running registers, cleaning up for maintenance, doing work with freight, stocking shelves, it’s just a lot around this time of year,” said Freeman. “It has just been one rollercoaster after another and it messes not only with us physically, but also our mental state because we’re being abused by customers and management.”

Freeman noted Walmart associates don’t receive any holiday pay and ended quarterly MyShare bonuses last year, with their only perk being a one-time extra employee discount of 15% for working on Black Friday.

“I’ve just come to realize during the holidays at Walmart, I don’t matter, it’s about what everybody else wants,” he added. “They need to be a little bit more considerate of their employees and what they’re going through, not just make us feel like we’re in a circuit and we’re there to jump through hoops. Without us there to stock your shelves, assist your customers or maintain your store to keep it running, there would be no Walmart.”

According to a poll conducted by the National Retail Federation in September 2022, 45% of holiday shoppers say they are likely to shop on Black Friday this year. Holiday retail sales forecasts project increases between 6-8% in sales compared with 2021, as holiday retail sales have grown consistently every year since the 2008 economic recession.

At Amazon, the largest online retailer in the US, warehouse workers head into the company’s peak season, during which workers are expected to work mandatory overtime hours to handle the boom in online orders through the holidays kicked off by Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.

An employee checks on a Christmas display at a Walmart store in Chicago, Illinois, in 2016.
An employee checks on a Christmas display at a Walmart store in Chicago, Illinois, in 2016. Photograph: Kamil Krzaczyński/Reuters

Daniel Olayiwola, a picker at Amazon in San Antonio, Texas, for five years and member leader with the nonprofit worker advocacy group United for Respect, said the mandatory extra overtime during peak season compounds issues workers have with productivity quotas, and fears of termination if they don’t have enough unpaid time off accrued to be able to take time off or turn down the mandatory overtime shifts.

Even after five years, Olayiwola said he still experiences the fear induced by write-ups and the constant risk of being fired.

“They will schedule you for an extra day and an extra hour every day, so instead of working a 40-hour week, you could be working 55 or 60 hours a week and you don’t have a choice. People don’t realize that they’re stuck in the situation until they realize it’s the end of the year, they don’t have unpaid time off and they have an emergency and really have to leave work but if they leave work, they’re going to lose their job and it’s just sad,” said Olayiwola.

He added: “The way they beat you down and the way they have you constantly looking over your shoulder because of the rates, the amount of idle time that you have to go to the bathroom, the time off task time, it has people stressed out, and people are really just trying to keep a job through the pandemic and through the inflation situation we have going on.”

During the holidays, Amazon hires thousands of temporary workers, with 150,000 seasonal employees hired by the company for the 2022 holidays. Olayiwola argued the influx of seasonal workers contributes to the hectic atmosphere during peak season, as many of them aren’t experienced or haven’t been trained well enough.

“You’re given a lot of this fake hype and fake excitement around peak season, when that is not the case at all,” he added. “People who work at Amazon during peak seasons are not having a good time. It’s very difficult for you to continue to add extra days and hours on people’s schedules, without any option of coming or not coming. They are literally offering us pizza parties, like we’re in elementary school.”


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Fed announces smallest interest hike in a year as inflation ‘eases somewhat’

The US Federal Reserve signaled a slowdown in its fight against soaring inflation on Wednesday, announcing its smallest hike in interest rates in almost a year.

After its latest meeting, the Fed announced a quarter-point increase in its benchmark interest rate to a range of 4.5% to 4.75%, the smallest increase since March last year. “Inflation has eased somewhat but remains elevated,” the Fed said in a statement adding that “ongoing increases” will be appropriate as it seeks to bring prices down.

“We covered a lot of ground, and the full effects of our rapid tightening so far are yet to be felt. Even so, we have more work to do,” said Fed chair Jerome Powell.

Inflation in the US has been running at levels unseen since the 1980s, triggering a cost of living crisis as the price of everything from eggs to gas and rent has shot up.

In order to tamp down inflation the Fed has aggressively hiked rates as it seeks to cool the economy and bring prices back under control.

A year ago the Fed rate – which affects the interest rates on everything from business and personal loans to mortgages and credit card rates – was close to zero. After the most rapid series of rises since the 1980s, it is now at a level last seen in 2007.

There are signs that prices are coming down. In December, the annual rate of inflation fell to 6.5% from 7.1% in the previous month, the sixth straight month of yearly declines and well below the peak of 9.1% it hit in June, its highest rate since 1982.

Consumer spending – the largest driver of the economy – fell 0.2% from November to December. The housing market has slowed and many of the major tech companies have announced large job cuts as they have moved to rein in spending.

But inflation remains well above the Fed’s annual target rate of 2% and the central bank has said it will keep rates high until price stability is achieved. The Fed also continues to worry about the jobs market. The unemployment rate was 3.5% in December, a 50-year low and on Wednesday the labor department announced there were 11m job openings in the US in December – almost two available jobs for every person looking for one and an increase from November.

The tight labor market has driven up wages and Powell, has made clear that the central bank believes rising wages threaten to spur on inflation – a so-called wage-price spiral. “You don’t see that yet, but the whole point is, once you see it, you have a serious problem. That means that effectively in people’s decision-making, inflation has become a real salient issue,” said Powell. “That is what we can’t allow to happen.”

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Bank of England raises UK interest rates to 4%

The Bank of England has blamed the inflationary impact of higher than expected wage rises for an increase in interest rates from 3.5% to 4%, piling more pressure on mortgage payers and businesses struggling to pay off their loans.

Amid calls from unions for higher wages to protect against the worst falls in living standards for 100 years, a majority of the Bank’s monetary policy committee (MPC) said the 0.5 percentage point rise was needed after a jump in private sector wages above the central bank’s previous forecasts.

Marking its 10th consecutive rate increase, the Bank said the economy would enter a shorter and shallower recession than it predicted last year – with output falling by 1% from peak to trough compared with a 3% drop it said in November.

Bank staff now expected GDP to have grown by 0.1% in the final quarter of 2022, stronger than predicted in November. That would mean the UK did not enter a technical recession in 2022, as previously thought after the economy shank by 0.3% in the third quarter.

The UK economy is forecast to shrink in each quarter of 2023 and the first quarter of 2024 before staging a modest recovery.

The Bank said the hit to trade from Britain was being felt sooner than previously expected. “The effects of Brexit on trade are now estimated to be emerging more quickly than previously assumed, and that lowers productivity somewhat,” it said.

The 0.5-point increase was forecast by City analysts, who expect the Bank to raise interest rates again to 4.5% in the spring before a series of cuts next year brings Bank rate back to 3.5%.

More than 1.5 million mortgage payers are expected to suffer an average £3,000-a-year increase in interest payments when they refinance their loans this year as well as the hundreds of thousands of households that refinanced at higher rates in 2022.

Monthly bills for households in the rental sector have rocketed, with landlords blaming higher borrowing costs for the rises.

Two members of the nine-member MPC voted to keep rates at 3.5%, arguing that the effects of previous rates rises had yet to feed through into the wider economy.

Silvana Tenreyro and Swati Dhingra, both seconded from the London School of Economics to the MPC, have repeatedly warned that the central bank underestimates the impact of previous interest rate rises and should pause to judge the effects on mortgage holders, renters and small businesses before taking further action.

The MPC’s majority view was that it would “continue to monitor closely indications of persistent inflationary pressures, including the tightness of labour market conditions and the behaviour of wage growth and services inflation”.

In a warning to workers, it said if there was evidence of “more persistent pressures, then further tightening in monetary policy would be required”.

The Bank expects the headline rate of inflation to fall rapidly this year from December’s 10.5% to 3.5% by the end of the year, and then 1% in 2024. The Bank has an inflation target of 2%.

The MPC said GDP would only reach its previous peak in 2019 by 2026, indicating that a combination of staff shortages fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit combined with high energy prices had reduced the economy’s capacity to grow.

After the turmoil in financial markets that followed Liz Truss’s mini-budget, investors forecast interest rates peaking at 5.25%, but the highest they expected before today’s meeting was 4.5%.

Private sector wages increased by 7.2% in the three months to November, according to official figures that show the highest rises going to workers in the financial services sector and business services such as accountancy and the legal industry. Most negotiated wage rises are about 4%, according to industry surveys.

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Shell’s actual spending on renewables is fraction of what it claims, group alleges

Shell has misleadingly overstated how much it is spending on renewable energy and should be investigated and potentially fined by the US financial regulator, according to a non-profit group which has lodged a complaint against the oil giant.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been urged to act over Shell’s most recent annual report in which it stated 12% of its capital expenditure was funneled into a division called Renewables and Energy Solutions in 2021. The division’s webpage, which is adorned with pictures of wind turbines and solar panels, says it is working to invest in “wind, solar, electric vehicle charging, hydrogen, and more”.

However, Global Witness, the activist group that has lodged the new complaint with the SEC, argues that just 1.5% of Shell’s capital expenditure has been used to develop genuine renewables, such as wind and solar, with much of the rest of the division’s resources devoted to gas, which is a fossil fuel.

“What Shell has said about the energy transition is not reflected in what they are doing,” said Zorka Milin, senior adviser at Global Witness. “This business unit is fundamentally mislabeled, it has very little in the way of renewables and investors could be lulled into thinking Shell is doing far more on renewables than it is.

“This is greenwashing. Gas, whatever it may be, is not renewable, it’s part of the problem. I hope the SEC opens an investigation and imposes appropriate penalties to stop this greenwashing.”

Shell does not have a full breakdown of its renewable energy activity in its annual reports but Global Witness said that by examining the document they could find $288m in wind and solar investment in 2021, which is equivalent to 1.5% of Shell’s capital expenditure. Much of the spending by the Renewables and Energy Solutions division appears to be on the trading and marketing of gas.

Should the SEC act over the issue, it will mark the most aggressive regulatory foray yet by the US federal government against a fossil fuel sector that is facing multiple lawsuits in several states for misleading investors and the public over what they knew about the climate crisis.

Shell, which is headquartered in London but is listed on the New York stock exchange, has denied misleading investors. “We’re confident Shell’s financial disclosures are fully compliant with all SEC and other reporting requirements,” said a company spokeswoman.

The Shell spokeswoman said the company budgeted $20bn for “energy transition activities” in 2022, which is a third of its total operational and capital expenditure spending. This investment went towards renewable energy, hydrogen fuels, capturing carbon at the source of pollution and research and development, she said.

Most of the world’s largest oil companies now accept that burning their product is causing global heating and have committed to the goals of the Paris climate agreement. But their shift away from fossil fuels has been ponderous – only about 5% of oil and gas company capital expenditure went to wind, solar and other renewables in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency. This was up from just 1% in 2019.

Last year was a particularly lucrative one for oil companies’ traditional business model, with soaring fossil fuel costs in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompting record profits for some of the wealthiest businesses in the world. Exxon made a record annual profit of nearly $56bn last year, while Chevron has reported a $36.5bn profit for 2022.

Milin said she hoped the SEC, which is separately mulling new requirements for companies to disclose their greenhouse gases, would act to deter other oil companies. “No more will we allow big polluters to pull the wool over our eyes while the world burns,” she said. The SEC did not respond to a request for comment.

Bruce Huber, an expert in environmental law at Notre Dame University, said the new complaint highlights the external pressure that environmentalists are now placing upon fossil fuel companies.

“What we’re seeing now is climate activists poring over the disclosures of energy firms with a fine-tooth comb, looking for any misstatements that could be the basis for liability or penalty,” he said.

“Whether these tactics will actually induce Shell or its competitors to decarbonize is unclear, but even if not, those firms won’t be able to sneeze without someone looking for a securities violation.”

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