Supermarket catastrophe uncovers poor working conditions in retail sector

When the roof of a supermarket in Latvia collapsed on 21 November 2013, there were 54 fatalities – customers, workers and rescue workers – and 38 people injured. The incident provoked great anger and pressure for those responsible to be named and punished. An investigation has shown that working conditions in many supermarkets, including the Maxima chain where the tragedy occurred, were poor and that unionisation of workers was not encouraged by employers in the sector.

Fatal roof collapse

In the heavily populated Rīga suburb of Zolitūde, the roof of a Maxima supermarket collapsed at 6pm on 21 November 2013. The store was busy and the roof over the cash registers collapsed onto cashiers and lines of customers. An hour later, another part of the roof collapsed burying both the injured and rescue workers. There was a third collapse occurred at 6 pm on the following day, but this time there were no injuries. The fire alarm had sounded for several hours before the first collapse, but employees did not leave the store and customers were not evacuated.

In all, 54 people died, four of them Maxima employees and three rescue workers. Thirty-eight injured people, including a number of rescue workers, were taken to hospitals in Rīga. The Rīga Social Services Department said the parents of 37 children had been injured or killed in the tragedy. In total, the official figures put the number of victims at 115 people.

Solidarity and anger

Public opinion in Latvia was deeply stirred by the tragedy. During the rescue efforts and for several days afterwards large crowds gathered near the store. A carpet of candles and flowers covered the area; volunteers brought hot tea, meat buns and sandwiches to those who were waiting for news. All over Latvia people placed flowers and candles by the walls of fire stations and in town squares to commiserate with those who had lost loved ones and to show their horror at what had happened. Some called for a boycott of the Maxima supermarket chain, others blamed systemic causes such as corruption, poor supervision of construction works and budget cuts prompted by economic austerity policies. There were demands for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the event, to establish its causes and bring those responsible to justice. People in Estonia and Lithuania, particularly those employed by Maxima, expressed their support for the people of Latvia.

Government response

In response to the Zolitūde tragedy, Latvia’s Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned on 27 November 2013, as did Economic Secretary of State Juris Pūce. Eight employees of the Rī ga City Council (RD) Board of Construction were suspended while the investigation into the tragedy was underway. An independent commission was established to ensure that the causes of the tragedy were determined. The government also established the national building supervision institution.

Gintars Jasinskis, Managing Director of Maxima Latvia, was fired. Some government ministers publicly announced that they were personally boycotting Maxima. A new government formed by the new Prime Minister, Laimdota Straujuma, took office on 22 January 2014. She rejected a move to include the former Minister of Economics, Daniels Pavluts, in the new government. He had been responsible the construction sector under the previous administration and the new government rejected him on the grounds that he had failed to provide proper oversight of the sector.

Serious safety violations

The official investigation has not issued its final conclusions, but, on the basis of eye-witness accounts, journalists suggest three possible reasons for the enormity of the tragedy: technical flaws resulting in the collapse of the structure, an organisational shortfall preventing the evacuation of employees and customers, and the limited effectiveness of rescue efforts.

Technical causes

Investigators looking at technical causes discovered mistakes in the construction design that had gone unnoticed because the state-level institution responsible for overseeing construction had been shut down as part of the government’s austerity measures. Responsibility for construction safety had been delegated to the construction boards of local governments (85 in total), and they did not have adequate resources to perform high-quality inspection and supervision.

After the tragedy, safety checks were made in 565 public buildings (41% of the total public building stock) and safety problems were found in 38 of them. Breach of construction norms was discovered in 162 buildings. As a result of visual inspection, cracks other failings were found in 13 of 59 working Maxima stores and in 18 of 58 working Rimi and Supernetto stores.

Organisational causes

In seeking organisational causes, it was discovered that harsh working conditions and inadequate employee protection prevailed, not only at the store in Zolitūde, but also across the entire Maxima supermarket chain in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

For example, employees are not allowed to leave their work stations without permission, salaries were equal to the minimum wage for normal working time (40 hours per week), work hours were long (due to aggregate working time regime), overtime work was not compensated and employees were given tasks unsuited to their physical abilities or their professional training.

Employees were also obliged to buy products whose shelf life had expired. The cost of the store’s Christmas gifts to their employees’ children was deducted from parent’s salaries.

Internal policy dictated that when the fire alarm sounded, security guards should first find the cause and only evacuate people and leave the premises themselves if there is some obvious danger. Because no ‘obvious’ reason was found in the Zolitūde store, employees continued working, and customers were not evacuated. Workers were also not evacuated from the Drogas shops located in the same building.

Employees were also working in extremely dangerous circumstances. Construction work was underway on the roof, for a children’s playground, and in the basement to create an underground car park.

Rescue efforts

The rescue workers called to the scene performed their duty selflessly, to the point of sacrificing their lives. Yet, as a result of the state’s austerity cuts their working conditions are modest. State Firefighting and Rescue Service (VUGD) employees are paid less than Latvia’s median salary. Firefighters are also not insured and the VUGD does not have a sufficiently large training ground where firefighters can learn practical and necessary skills.

Workers’ legal rights

Data on working conditions in supermarkets were obtained from anonymous sources or from those who were injured in the tragedy and were not planning to return to work for Maxima. In a TV interview, Maxima shareowner Igns Staskevics confirmed that the salaries of Maxima cashiers are LVL 200 (€285 as at 11 March 2014) per month, which is the national minimum wage. He explained the low wages as being due to a lack of alternative employment.

In the supermarket sector, it is virtually impossible to establish labour unions and employees do not explore other avenues of legal protection. The State Labour Inspectorate (VDI) reports that the number of complaints from the retail sector is no higher than from any other.

Aftermath

The tragedy in Zolitūde is not forgotten. A media programme has been created to remind Latvians of the event every day, publishing news from the investigation process and interviews with victims of the tragedy.

Journalists have discovered that the independent commission investigating the tragedy claimed high expenses before their work programme began. Under the pressure of public opinion, members of the commission have resigned one by one. Journalists have also started a charity campaign to support improvement of rescue workers’ working conditions. Entrepreneurs and the public have responded immediately, leading to some workplaces being fundamentally improved. Journalists are also regularly inviting those in authority to announce publicly what they know about the results of investigations. The media is insisting that the names of those responsible should be made public.

Less attention has been paid to improving working conditions in supermarkets and work quality in the construction sector. It was expected that Maxima’s business interests and those of the construction companies involved would be harmed, but this has not been the case. However, much more attention is now being paid to safety in supermarkets and other public buildings.

Maxima Latvia has promised to support the children who were affected by the tragedy until they come of age and first payments are done. The construction companies involved refuse to admit liability or give any formal response to the tragedy.

Commentary

The tragedy in Zolitūde raises questions about the human cost of austerity measures.

Insufficient financing is among the reasons for substandard quality in construction, inadequate supervision of work conditions, low salaries and poor working conditions in the rescue services. There is no doubt that losses caused by the tragedy to society will far exceed any gains gleaned from austerity measures.

The loss of life cannot be restored or compensated, and enormous sums will be spent in dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy. Considerable state funds will, for instance, be spent on hiring foreign experts to determine the causes of the tragedy.

On 28 November 2013, the Saeima of the Republic of Latvia voted to allocate LVL 15 million (€21.34 million) from the state budget to put support measures in place for the injured, to deal with any other detrimental consequences for those involved in the tragedy, and to cover unexpected expenses. An additional LVL 121,000 (€172,000) will be needed later.

Raita Karnite, EPC Ltd.

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