Retail is now the largest employer in the United States. For the most part, retail jobs are “bad jobs” characterized by low wages, unpredictable work schedules, and few opportunities for advancement. However, labor experts Françoise Carré and Chris Tilly show that these conditions are not inevitable. In a new book from RSF, Where Bad Jobs Are Better, they investigate retail work across different industries and seven countries to demonstrate that better retail jobs are not just possible but already exist. By carefully analyzing the factors that lead to more desirable retail jobs, Where Bad Jobs Are Better charts a path to improving job quality for all low-wage jobs.
In surveying retail work across the U.S., Carré and Tilly show that the majority of retail workers receive low pay and nearly half work part-time, which contributes to high turnover and low productivity. Yet, when comparing these jobs to similar positions in other countries, Carré and Tilly find surprising differences. In France, though supermarket cashiers perform essentially the same work as cashiers in the U.S., they receive higher pay, are mostly full-time, and experience lower turnover and higher productivity. In Germany, retailers are required by law to provide their employees notice of work schedules six months in advance. The authors demonstrate that these disparities in job quality are largely the result of differing social norms and national institutions. For instance, weak labor regulations and the decline of unions in the U.S. have enabled retailers to cut labor costs aggressively in ways that depress wages and discourage full-time work. On the other hand, higher minimum wages, greater government regulation of work schedules, and stronger collective bargaining through unions and works councils have improved the quality of retail jobs in Europe.
As the New York Times' Eduardo Porter wrote in a recent column citing research from the book, "There is nothing inevitable about dead-end jobs." He concluded, "As the United States struggles with stagnating wages and widening inequality, giving bottom-end workers a better deal might not be a bad choice."