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Why People Are Buying Nothing This Black Friday

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Artwork by Tristan Offit
From hamburgers to hip hop, the UK has welcomed so many aspects of American culture with open arms. But one transatlantic import we should swiftly pack up and return to sender is Black Friday.

In the US there has been rising awareness of the toll Black Friday takes on workers. Black Friday – which supposedly gets its name because it pushes retailers’ finances from red to black – falls the day after Thanksgiving. For most Americans, Thanksgiving is the biggest public holiday of the year; it’s a day to spend time with family, eat lots of pie and watch American football. Many US retailers, including Walmart and Macy’s, now open their doors to shoppers on Thanksgiving Day. Getting employees to work long hours on low wages before they have even had time to let their turkey dinners settle flies in the face of what the day is all about: giving thanks.

As a result, there is growing backlash in the US against Black Friday, with protests, petitions and boycotts. For the past couple of years, the Black Lives Matter movement has turned Black Friday into a day of demonstration in major US cities, calling attention to the institutional racism and violence African Americans face at the hands of the police. One tactic has been to stage “die-ins”, where people lie down on shop floors pretending to be dead, as a chilling reminder to shoppers of the lives that have been lost. Similar direct action has been planned this year.

Of course, we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK, so Black Friday falls after just another unextraordinary Thursday in November. But some of the negative impacts it has on workers’ rights are being felt here, too. Several investigations this year have shone a light on the appalling working conditions that staff on zero-hours contracts face in the UK: the most notable being Sports Direct. It’s not just staff working on the shop floor whom we should be concerned about. With so much Black Friday shopping expected to take place online, people who work in delivery centres are under added pressure to meet the demands of higher-than-usual order numbers promised in super-speedy delivery times. Many retailers hire extra staff this time of year, which of course creates more jobs – but this work is only temporary. In a dispute over pay, workers at 40 packaging factories, including one used by Amazon, have planned strike action on Monday 28 November, which could seriously disrupt Black Friday deliveries.

There are concerns that the rush of sales will lead to road traffic accidents, with exhausted delivery drivers falling asleep behind the wheel


“Our members are clearly fed up of seeing their employers make increasing profits in this sector while their wages fall behind in real terms,” Stuart Fegan, national officer for GMB, the trade union planning the strike with Unite, told The Guardian.

Meanwhile, there are concerns that the rush of Black Friday sales will lead to road traffic accidents, with exhausted delivery drivers working long hours and falling asleep behind the wheel. MP Frank Field recently asked for an investigation into Hermes, the delivery company used by John Lewis and Next, over complaints that its contractors are “treated like dirt”. According to a Guardian report, Hermes drivers, who often work six days in a row, have been asked to work this Sunday for an extra £40 to help with the unprecedented volume of deliveries expected. “It is dangerous … We end up in a position where we almost aren’t given the option to say no,” a courier told the newspaper.

This spike in demand also has consequences for people outside the UK, working on the complex and murky supply chains of those products featured in flashy Black Friday ads. Big tech companies, for example, are known to hire more temporary staff and put factory workers on poor wages under immense pressure to meet greater demand at busy sales times of the year. Beyond the sweatshops and factories where these products are manufactured, workers, including children, sourcing the raw materials – from the mineral mines of the DRC to the cotton fields of Uzbekistan – are trapped in slave labour.

We can’t ignore the fact that retail is an important driver of the British economy, employing 2.8 million people. But we should still hold these big companies to account and question who actually benefits from Black Friday. It’s certainly not the exhausted behind-the-scenes workers on low wages.

Many people rely on sales to buy products they cannot afford at other times of the year. The rise of online retail, however, means discounting happens all year round; so building hype around a sale on a certain day, weekend, or week, is a cynical marketing ploy. In fact, consumer rights magazine Which? found that half of the Black Friday deals it tracked last year were more expensive on the day than at other times of the year, and accused some retailers of “misleading” customers.

This is why on Friday many people are going to be shunning Black Friday by opting to buy nothing – participating by not participating, as Adbusters puts it. The effectiveness of boycotts is hard to prove but we all know that money talks. And every marketer has it drilled into them that they must listen to the consumer. So if we, the so-called consumers, tell them that we want better conditions for their workers, instead of multimillion-pound advertising campaigns, they should listen. Some already have by ducking out of the Black Friday madness. Choosing to buy nothing this Friday, and telling people about it, is a way to stand up for those who have no choice but to work under punishing conditions. And your wallet will thank you.
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