In the Kensington M&S where I get my lunch – the delicatessen has a very decent pork pie or Scotch egg – the business of queuing is a matter for snap judgments…if there’s an empty till going with a human being on it (do I need to say why automated tills are a pain?) then you make for it before someone with a trolley does. So when I heard about the customer in a ‘central London’ M&S who got asked by the woman on the till to wait for someone else to serve her because of the champagne in her shopping, well, I had a kind of fellow feeling. What, start queuing again, if you’ve just managed to get served? The assistant was ‘very apologetic’ apparently, but it would take more than apologies to unruffle your feathers if you’re not served for having something in your shopping that the shop actually sells.
The fault of course lies with the retailer. If M&S hadn’t made clear to this Muslim assistant that serving on a till meant selling all the goods they’re offering they were at fault, and if the woman hadn’t made clear to management that she couldn’t sell pork or alcohol in clear conscience, then she should be put selling tights pronto. A vegetarian who spurned customers buying sausages would get pretty short shrift, I fancy. Other retailers have been pretty coy about their stance – all of them making clear that they’d work round their workers’ consciences – but Tesco has been probably the sanest, saying it would make ‘no sense’ to put someone on a till who couldn’t handle the things on sale.
The one point worth making is that there is one other area where rights of conscience run counter to your employment chances in the retail sector, and that is a refusal to work on Sundays. When Mrs T brought in Sunday trading, there were meant to be elaborate rights in law to protect shop workers who had problems with Sunday working and that’s still true for someone taken on before 1994. For everyone else, if your contract specifies Sunday working, well, you have to give three months’ notice to your employer (who should have notified you about your rights at the outset) before you can take Sundays off. But whenever I’ve asked shopworkers whether they would actually be able to exercise the right, they just laugh: not a chance, is the gist, especially if you make the matter clear before you’re taken on (in which case you probably won’t be). I expect the big four supermarkets are fine about it; they’ve got elaborate codes of conduct on this one, but harder-edged retailers, smaller outlets, are another matter.
The former bishop of Rochester has said that people who don’t want to work on Sundays compromise their promotion and employment prospects. He’s right of course. But at least people who object to Sunday working don’t normally have a problem about selling the goods the shop they work for stocks. That, I’d say, is a more fundamental problem, and in Muslim majority area, I can see that the right to buy champagne and pork pie and the right not to sell them is going to get more and more difficult to square.