The largest private employer in Latvia, the supermarket chain Maxima, is constantly looking for workers. The long and intensive work hours are only some of the reasons why people leave their jobs at this employer.
Getting a job at Maxima was easy. All I had to do was ring the information line and I was invited to an interview. After a few days I headed to Maxima’s Human Resources Department. I was sent to a small room which reminded me of a classroom: a blackboard, projector and chairs lined up in rows. The air in the room was a bit stale. There were two women and two men there before me. Sad faces, red noses. They quietly filled in questionnaires. I was given one as well. I wrote about my education, previous work experience and indicated the position I wanted: cashier-shop assistant.
Soon enough a young woman wearing purple leggings marched into the room. For about an hour she calmly and slowly told us about the company policy and mission. After that we had to do a test. In two minutes, but quicker if possible, you have to put the appropriate symbol in each box: a triangle for the number «two», for «four» — a semi-circle.
Another woman and I were asked to stay on. She asked us how we’d respond to various situations in the store. What would I do if a customer puts different types of sweets in the same bag? I replied that I’d sort them out into separate bags. Correct. I filled in one more test and then left.
I received a telephone call on the same day asking which shop I’d like to work in. I chose Sarkandaugava. After a few more hours the shop rang me and I was invited in for a meeting the next day.
The Maxima, with one X, is next to a school, and there were some students smoking around the corner. Every so often someone staggered out of a courtyard on their way to the store.
I was met at Maxima by a young woman who explained to me that it was in my interests to get a sanitary certificate organized quickly, otherwise the position I wanted would be taken by someone else. The next day I headed off to the vocational-doctor who did an x-ray and some tests. After two days the certificate was ready and I could sign the employment contract. The day before, I’d attended some training where I listened to a lecture about the company’s history and goals. They also talked about work safety and the observation of hygiene. I found out how to wash my hands the correct way. After that there was some practical training where they showed you how to work with a cash register and how to talk to customers.
My first work day. Most of the time the shop was full of customers and the frequent peeps of the scanner added to the din of conversation. When there weren’t many customers, the shop became oppressively quiet. There was no music.
I started work, familiarizing myself with the shop. I had to write down the codes for all the goods that needed to be weighed, in a note book: fruit, vegetables, sweets, biscuits and grilled meat. After that I sat down at the till. I was worried. For a while the senior cashier stood next to me. She taught me how to correct an incorrectly rung up product on a receipt; she showed me the bell with which I could call the senior cashier, security guards or other cashiers.
My first customer was a man about thirty years of age. He was dressed in a black leather jacket, with a cap on his head with the word Rossija on it. He had a few days’ stubble on his face. He was buying milk and white bread. And the yellow camel — Camel cigarettes. He didn’t look at me once, nor respond when I handed him his change and said «thanks for the purchase.» The cashier has to greet every customer, ask them if they have the Paldies discount card and wish them a nice day.
You have to work fast, but mistakes do happen when counting. If I hand too little change back, the customer notices immediately. The customers get sulky. At the end of the line, somebody was getting impatient and angrily asked: «Young lady, can you be quicker?» I blushed and got even more upset. If I tried to work faster I made more mistakes.
I frequently asked the other cashiers for help: when I didn’t know how to replace the paper roll in the till; when I didn’t know how to take the money saved off the Paldies card; what to do with a gift card. My absence of knowledge delayed the work of the other cashiers, but they didn’t get upset even once. They calmly explained what I had to do. I’m was only allowed to disturb the senior cashier when I needed money changed or a customer wanted to return an item.
«Why does it say here that sausage costs 89 santims?! There’s a price tag on the sausage which says it costs 69! Well, you do try to cheat us at Maxima,» says a tight lipped older lady, peering into the little screen where the price for the item appears. It’s true. There is a difference in price. The sausage has been reduced and it has been allocated a «different price». I apologized and, nervously tapped the keys of the till which I didn’t know well, made a correction and fixed up the error. «You should always carefully check each item, to see if has a «different price» tag». I am told about this later by senior cashier Tatjana*. It was easy to correct the error as the buyer noticed the discrepancy in price immediately after the item was scanned. If it had been put on the receipt, I’d have to make up the difference from my own pocket.
The cashiers have to chip in and pay for any shortfalls if a product goes missing. I had to throw in three lats for cigarettes which had gone missing.
My first work day was over. I was working part time — six hours without a break. I hadn’t eaten or left the till. No-one made me any offer to go to lunch. I only found out on the next day that you could eat whatever was prepared in the kitchen. My upper back was hurting as the chair didn’t really provide support. I was cold all of the time even though I had a heater switched on next to my feet. Wearing boots is forbidden — the rules state that you have to wear black classical footwear. But I was cold and that’s why I broke the rules and wore boots.
At the end of the shift I had to check the till. It was 96 santims short this time. On another day it was 10 lats short. It’s like a lottery – will there be a shortfall at the end of the day or won’t there? Racked with uncertainty, I always withdrew cash from a teller machine before work so that I could pay for any shortfall. In the month and a half working as a cashier, I paid almost 30 lats. It’s specified in the employment contract. But I’m not the only one working at that particular till during the day, so I am not certain if that shortfall was my fault.
At the very end, I have to fill in correction sheets. Corrections come about if a customer decides against taking a product or if I incorrectly enter the price of the product. These changes have to be immediately entered on the corrections sheet, but at time you forget or there’s no time to do it due to a long line forming. You can see the corrections in the receipt as well, so at the end of the day you can record them. «Some of the other girls come to work earlier or on weekends to find the corrections. You can see yourself that it’s not possible to do this during working time,» explains my direct supervisor, Tatjana, while I’m sitting next to her in the office and carefully unrolling the paper roll of receipts, searching for the missing corrections. The roll is long as there have been a lot of purchases.
After two hours, my corrections are complete and my working day is over.
Over the next days I work 11 hours. The hour-long lunch break is not included. Nobody eats for that long, but the unused time can be used in the evening to have another meal or to buy food for home. But even this way, it’s not possible to “waste” a whole hour during the day. On average the cashiers use about half of the permitted break time.
Lunch is free for Maxima employees. It is prepared by the cleaner. At our store, both of the cleaners are kind hearted babushkas — with gold earrings and aubergine colour hair. Both of them are always concerned about whether I’ve had enough to eat. When my turn to go to lunch arrives, the food has already cooled down. I put it in the microwave oven. While it’s reheating I respond to unanswered telephone calls, as you are not allowed to have a telephone or money in your pocket on the store floor.
There is usually soup and a main course for lunch. Today there’s pearl barley soup. I like this soup so I’m elated. Borsch is served the most frequently and pasta with meat or Strogonov.
I mainly dine alone. From the conversations of my colleagues I find out which employee has annoyed which other one, who is moonlighting and what is upsetting the employees. The demands are high but the pay is low. Most of them complain that there are few holidays and that they have to work overtime because there’s a shortage of cashiers. You can’t plan your time as you are often called in to work on weekends. I’ve had to work four days in a row, sometimes five.
Working on the till isn’t the only work the cashiers do. Each one gets allocated shelves in the store which they have to look after. The pay is higher if you replenish the shelves regularly and put out all the products from the storeroom. I really don’t understand how the condition of the shelves can be assessed in money terms.
My colleague Jekaterina tells me that a cashier’s pay is docked if their shelves aren’t in order. If the use-by-date of an item has expired and it hasn’t been removed from the shelf, the cashier has to purchase the product. Jekaterina has been forced to purchase a number of pancake dough mixes in this way.
I’m responsible for the shelf containing dog and cat food. I get to the shelf at least once a day.
One day there was an inspection in the store and something on my shelf wasn’t in order. In the end I was shown how to work with a planogram — it’s a diagram which shows how the items must be placed. All of the products which have been delivered have to be displayed in the store otherwise your pay is deducted.
The journey to the storeroom to get the goods is the most fast-moving part of the day and provides a shot of adrenaline. The storeroom is outside the store. I leave the shopping cart for the goods on the ramp. I go down the wonky stairs and across a quite potholed asphalt area. It is really just a big hole, covered with ice. I have to move quickly as we’re not given a lot of time to put the goods on the shelves.
Taking small careful steps, I get to the storeroom. When I locate what’s required I take it to the cart. The heaviest items are the cans of pet food and the products in big bags.
During the day there’s not much time to have a chat with my colleagues, so I haven’t got to know them well. Two older cashiers, Tatjana and Irina, are my direct supervisors. When I’d just started work, both of them tended to speak to me in a harsh, irritated tone of voice. Their tone has become more amiable now.
Tatjana might be around fifty. She is short and has violet coloured hair which is always in a high ponytail held by a large greyish green rubber band. She has a slightly gravelly voice and a habit of biting on her lips. Now and then she buys a bottle of Hektors Brandy before going home.
Irina is also fairly short with thick healthy hair, cut in a short style. She is young, around thirty, but, as she herself says, she’s been working in retailing for ten years already. She likes using the word «bļeģ»*, in a joking fashion. For example, «padimi svoju žopu, bļeģ» ** or «Padaj mņe, bļeģ, eto» ***. At the moment when some of the teasing jokes were also addressed to me, I understood that she’d accepted me. «Why are you fighting?!», she said if I accidentally bumped her. I heard «You must be getting fat» if I couldn’t get past behind her chair.
There are six of us cashiers: Jekaterina, Aleksandra, Solveiga, Elīna, Nina and I. I’ve got to know Jekaterina the best, as she speaks Latvian without any problem and is very talkative as well. Jekaterina is about thirty while the other cashiers are older. Solveiga already has grandchildren, is quite serious, bet very good-natured. She is the most correct towards her work. Only Solveiga always wishes her customers a good day, even when she is very tired.
Nina is intending to leave her job. She finds her work at the till just bearable, but not the looking after of her shelves: that creates stress for her, as you have to find the time to do this job. If there are lines forming, you have to rush back to the till and leave the restocking of the shelves. But, if the shelves are not in order, you get docked pay.
Nina is the only one to say out loud that she will be leaving. It seems that the others keep that thought to themselves: When I ask my colleagues how long they’ve been working at Maxima, I not only get a reply, but also the comment that they want to leave. «This system is terrible. You have to work so much without a holiday. You get docked pay and sometimes your pay ends up being less than twenty lats,» grumbles Jekaterina. She wants to go and work elsewhere. Lidija, one of the shift supervisors, shares this view. «I already said that I was leaving a while ago, but they talked me into staying. So I’m still here. But I keep thinking that I want to leave.»
At the end of the work day you really feel the tiredness. The movements you make are very similar and that’s why you feel pain in your back and arms. After I’d spent a number of days working from ten in the morning until ten at night, I got a feeling of resignation. Sometimes work is from 7am until 10pm and you don’t get the next day off. The lack of information also causes stress. The prices of the goods keep getting changed but the cashiers aren’t told about it. When I get to work, I have to go through the shop and check if prices have been changed. There’s not always enough time for this, so I’ll make mistakes at the till.
The locals and pensioners who come to the store on a regular basis bring some joy to the job. Their eyes are always smiling. When it’s the turn of a little old grey haired lady, she energetically places her shopping basket on the till, straightens up, and says: «Pajehaļi!» and starts to count the goods which I’m scanning. «Odin, dva, tri,» she counts and I join her.
There’s also a mysterious old man. When it’s time to pay, he quietly extends his hand with some money in it and I have to take out the correct amount.
My last working day is approaching. The old man gives me some chocolate and tells me I am his favourite cashier. And that he loves everybody − It doesn’t matter whether they are Latvian or Russian.
In the month and a half I’ve grown to understand that a good employee at Maxima is the kind who remains silent about wrongs done to them. And there are a lot of such good employees here.
*All of the employees’ names have been changed.
** Pick up your ass, f..k
*** Give me f..ing that..
To learn how much journalist earned in Maxima, read the main story: Wages of Desperation