Lidl is what's known as a "deep discount" supermarket chain. Translated from corporate patois, that means that low-income groups (what used to be known as working-class people) can get a week's shopping there for less than what it costs for a pot of crème fraîche in Waitrose. Now, Lidl is a rapidly expanding business, not a charity. So its low prices come at a high cost for someone. And that someone is the company's workforce in all the many locations where it operates.
Still privately owned by German entrepreneur Dieter Schwarz, Lidl is one of the fastest expanding retail companies in Europe. In addition to operating 2,500 stores and having more than 151,000 employees in its domestic German market, it has outlets in 16 other European countries and is planning to expand into Asia and Canada. Providing the impetus for this rapid growth are the sunrise economies of Mittel Europa: countries like Slovakia and Poland, where the combined privations of Stalinism and shock-treatment neo-liberalism mean that independent trade union structures are young and weak.
According to Uni Commerce, the international umbrella organisation of retail unions, Lidl is trying to copy US retailer Wal-Mart's model of "pressing down wages and benefits and squeezing as much as is possible from its personnel". Uni Commerce also castigates the company's culture of secrecy, suspicion and anti-union dirty tricks. In one instance the company reacted to a successful union recruitment drive at its distribution warehouses by reconfiguring its entire corporate structure overnight.
In the new EU member states the most famous, or infamous, allegation of Lidl abusing its workforce came to light in August last year. It was claimed that menstruating workers in Poland and the Czech Republic had to wear white headbands if they wanted to be allowed to use the toilet during working time. Of course, this very serious charge was sternly denied by Lidl's senior management. But the story had enough substance to feature in Lebensmittelzeitung, Germany's leading commerce magazine.
Bullying and intimidation are not restricted to Lidl's operations in "new" Europe. When the German retail union Ver.di opened a weblog enabling workers to report on the company's bad practices it was contacted by more than 3,500 present and former Lidl employees. The reports, which form the basis of a "black book" published by the union about the firm's tawdry employment practices, chronicle how "the company is obsessed with control to the extent that it becomes a serious violation of the integrity of its workers. Everyone is treated with mistrust, as a potential thief".
A culture of constant surveillance extends to every nook and cranny of Lidl's retail environment, with workers being subjected to frequent checks for contraband. Pockets are searched, as well as workers' cars. Even mandatory periods away from the shop floor take on a Big Brother aspect. One Finnish worker said: "Everything that is consumed at the workplace during the breaks, be it a yoghurt or a soft drink, must not only have a cash ticket taped to it; the ticket must also be signed by the supervisor."
So if you're ever in a once noble town that's fallen on hard times in this austere post-Thatcherite era you may happen upon a Lidl. Please try not to be beguiled by any of the company's weekly special deals (when I looked, it was offering a pink velour two-piece of the type favoured by Little Britain's Vicky Pollard at an amazing £5.99). Those prices may not bust your wallet, but you may inadvertently help to bust the union.
Now, I must remember to get some crème fraîche. Anybody in Islington fancy an early night?
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