Supermarket chain Lidl came under fire last week, in news reports from the BBC detailing that Polish workers in a store in Scotland had been told to stop speaking their native language amongst themselves or to other Polish customers, or risk losing their jobs. The allegations caused uproar amongst the European community in the UK, who called it a form of discrimination. Lidl have since responded to the allegations, saying they are completely false, but the chain has now sparked a wider debate that will surely continue for some time.
Surprised and upset
A Lidl store in Fife was targeted when two Polish employees came forward and claimed that they had been told by store management to only speak English in the store, or they faced losing their jobs. Both workers claimed they only ever spoke Polish to each other during breaks, or to Polish customers that they knew who addressed them first in Polish. Nevertheless, they were threatened by supervisors who overheard them speaking Polish during their shifts. One of the workers, who has lived in Scotland for ten years, was reportedly said he had never experienced any discrimination during his time in the UK, and was surprised and upset to be facing it for the first time from a large company like Lidl.
The town of Kirkcaldy has a large Polish community, and celebrates its own Polish festival every year. Many of the Polish residents – who have signed a petition in support of the Lidl workers – have praised the Scottish town for welcoming them, and said they never experience racial or immigration-based hatred as may be found in other parts of the UK. The general feeling of acceptance in this small town has aggravated the bad feeling caused by the store management, and their request for all staff to speak English only.
One of the workers who claims to have been told off for speaking Polish was quoted as saying ‘I tried to explain to the manager that many customers who do not speak English come to our shop because they know there is a Polish service [here].’
Naivety or discrimination?
Lidl responded to the original claims by stating that they do have a ‘general policy’ in their UK stores, in which they expect staff to speak English, in order to reduce misunderstandings and build staff relationships. However, yesterday the supermarket chain released a new statement categorically denying the claims that they have tried to stop staff from speaking foreign languages. They iterated that they do ask staff to respond to customers in the language in which they are addressed, meaning that staff are, in fact, able to respond to customers speaking a foreign language if they initiate the conversation.
The move has since caused outrage in Wales, where workers and officials have slammed Lidl as ‘violating’ the Welsh Language Act, which makes it illegal for companies operating in Wales to favour English over Welsh. But debates have been raging online, across social media and on TV shows like Loose Women, as to whether this is true discrimination, or the backlash of several unhappy store managers who were having a bad day.
One thing is for sure; the UK has too great a percentage of foreign workers to prevent them all from speaking in their native tongues. Very few of us would walk into a supermarket or restaurant in the UK today and expect all of the staff to be English, so is it right for us to expect to hear English everywhere we go? Although Lidl have apologised for any offence caused, this story is part of a much wider debate on immigration and racial policies, that the UK has certainly not heard the last of.
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