Christina Patterson: The dignity of work in a supermarket

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The Independent Online

Imagine a world where your every move was monitored and recorded. "Got up. Walked across room. Went to loo." Boring, isn't it? (For just how boring, see public transport diary, below.) Boring for you, boring for the observer and possibly just a little bit intrusive.

Actually, we don't have to imagine it, because Florian Henckel von Dinnersmarck's Oscar-winning The Lives of Others has already done it for us. Here was a chilling glimpse of a world – a world as recent as 1984, that once-future Big Brother dystopia and now history happily discarded – in which friends, employers and agents of the state spied on each other.

Alternatively, you could just get a job at Lidl. At certain branches of the cut-price supermarket, according to the German news magazine Stern, you can have the full Stasi experience. "Wednesday 14.05," said one of hundreds of pages of surveillance reports obtained by the magazine, "Mrs M wants to make a mobile phone call during her break, but she receives a message telling her that she has only got 85 cents left on her prepaid phone account. She finally manages to get in touch with a girlfriend with whom she would like to cook supper."

Mrs M might, in fact, have been quite hard pressed to make a mobile phone call during her break, which she might have had to use for a trip to the loo. In one Lidl store in the Czech Republic, according to Stern, urinating or defecating were luxuries forbidden to women workers during a shift – except to those who had their period. They could wear a headband "visible from a distance".

Closer to home, and in addition to the ubiquitous cameras, checkout staff have complained of "mystery shoppers" employed to outsmart staff and of machines recording the average speed of items put through each till – speeds checked by managers at night. Managers, by the way, under so much pressure to maximise profit that one responded to an armed robbery not by calling the police, or relieving the young cashier on duty, but by calling another manager to find out what form he had to fill in.

At the Asda where I've just bought my sandwich, a middle-aged man wearing a giant yellow badge saying "Here to Help!" handed me a green basket with a frightened smile. He has reason to be frightened. Asda's parent company, Wal-Mart, has been campaigning hard to get its working practices – no recognition of union rights, reduced sick pay, a policy of encouraging supervisors to "take the credence out of breaks" – introduced here.

At my local Matalan on Saturday, Jamie Simpson, a manager, was knifed in the neck while cashing up. He was found, by colleagues, bleeding to death. Security guards, according to a former employee, had stopped staying with managers as they cashed up. Mr Simpson had told his family that the job was so stressful he'd been planning to leave.

These, of course, are the kinds of jobs government ministers are talking about when they give speeches on the "dignity" of work. Or on restricting social housing to those seeking work. Or in swapping sick notes for "wellness" notes. Or on the satisfaction of fulfilling potential.

Yes, of course it's lovely to be a politician or a pundit. Of course it's lovely to pay your own way. Of course it's nice to get out of the house and get home again, tired. Given a choice, however, between the "freedom" of Lidl, or Asda, or Matalan and the freedom of the dole and paid rent – with about the same level of what's laughably called "disposable income" – I think I might opt for the freedom that allowed me to watch a bit of daytime telly.

A happy bunny at long last

It sticks in the craw for a journalist to say it, but sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. It's hard, in fact, to think of a single more powerful way of summing up the Bush presidency than those pictures of him on Monday hugging the Easter bunny.

Here, at long last, he looked utterly at peace. Here, at long last, he had found unconditional love. This was a creature (a God, perhaps, even a Southern Baptist God) who finally understood him, who knew that to make an omelette you have to break a few eggs. When the news came through that the number of American servicemen killed in Iraq had now topped 4,000, Bush was rolling chocolate eggs on the White House lawn. God bless America – the land of the furry and the free.

* For those of you who don't live in London, let me give you a snapshot of a pretty average day. Tuesday, in fact. Leave for work at nine. Catch train to Liverpool Street and Tube to Bank. Am informed that Docklands Light Railway is down, so get Tube to London Bridge for Jubilee Line instead. At London Bridge am informed that Jubilee Line is down and told to get bus to Canada Water. At Canada Water, staff don't know about DLR closure, but say there are no buses to Canary Wharf. Get bus to Deptford Bridge, by which time DLR is restored. Get DLR to South Quay and arrive at work at 11am. Two hours for 10 miles. On the way home, I'm stuck behind a broken-down train and get home at 10pm. The next day I'm informed that "there will be no interchange at Bank" until August 2009 because "we are transforming your Tube". Thanks, Ken, for getting me back in my car.