“The Customer is Always Right”: Workplace Freedom in the Era of Covid-19

Writing by Clare Edwards. Illustration by Berenika Murray.

“The customer is always right”: a phrase familiar to anyone who has ever worked in hospitality or retail.


This phrase highlights the way in which modern businesses, to the benefit of their shareholders, are structured to direct freedoms towards a certain group of stakeholders and away from another. Away from the worker and towards the consumer.


This is a phenomenon that has been exacerbated over the course of the pandemic. Frontline workers have put themselves at risk, while consumers use the services they provide from a position of relative safety.


Having worked in hospitality during the pandemic I have encountered examples of this first-hand. I have been wearing a face mask for twelve hours a day in order to protect customers, who at the same time have been permitted to sit at their tables, breathing in my face while ordering their pints. Should we reconsider whose responsibility it is to protect whom?

Yet outside of my role as a worker, I also take on the role of a consumer. I buy groceries, I shop online for clothes, I drink in pubs. And behind each of these seemingly mundane activities is another worker. Many thousands of workers, in fact.


Throughout our daily lives, we all (or at least the vast majority of us) take on the role of both consumer and worker.


The freedom to walk into a pub without a face mask, the freedom to shop for groceries from the safety of our own homes, the freedom to order an Uber Eats straight to our front doors. Or, more generally, the freedom to buy anything from anywhere in the world at any time. These are freedoms that we, as consumers, take for granted. But they are freedoms that, as workers, we pay for. Not necessarily in the monetary sense, but with our rights as labourers.


Some economists argue that in our late-capitalist society, the freedom we have gained in our roles as consumers compensates for the freedom we have lost in our roles as workers, and vice versa. [1]


Currently in the United Kingdom, over-25-year-olds are entitled to a minimum wage of £8.91, as well as the right to 28 days of paid holiday. [2] Many of the workplace rights we enjoy today are the result of changes to UK labour law gained through industrial action such as striking, through the formation of trade unions, and through pressure groups.


These rights, of course, come at a cost to the employer. We must ask ourselves: should we sacrifice our rights as consumers to gain rights as workers? Or would we be better off with more freedom as consumers, while sacrificing some of our workplace liberties?


In an ideal world, this would be a fair trade-off. Losing out on certain workplace freedoms would be counterbalanced by gaining new consumer freedoms, and lacking the great demand that we have as consumers today could be made up for with changes to labour laws that favour us as workers.


However, the world is not fair. Consumer freedom is a privilege that belongs to the rich. Although at times we all take on both roles, those with more wealth are able to consume more, whereas those with less wealth consume less. This means that the battle between workplace freedom and consumer freedom is an uneven one. It has become the responsibility of the worker to address these inequities by campaigning for greater workplace freedom, because, on an uneven balance, businesses will always choose the heavier side: the side of the customer.


[1] Varman. R and Vikas. R, “Freedom and Consumption: Toward Conceptualizing Systemic Constraints for Subaltern Consumers in a Capitalist Society”, Consumption Markets and Culture, June 2007

[2] “National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage Rates,” GOV.UK, accessed August 17, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/national-minimum-wage-rates



23 views0 comments