Convenience store giant Circle K has been accused of imposing “excessive” customer service specifications upon its cashiers, such as requiring them to wear caps all day long and banning them from drinking water in front of customers.

Labour rights campaigner Luke Ching has been trying to push the company to review its internal policies after finding out store assistants are dissatisfied with many of the rules.

circle k
Photo: HKFP/Elson Tong.


Ching told HKFP that he had heard many complaints about the requirement to wear caps. “It is very hot for the workers, especially because the cashier is often located near the front door,” he said.

He said the items have no practical benefit, obstruct the vision of workers and may lead to neck problems.

A cashier told HK01: “Other convenience stores like Vango and 7-Eleven don’t make their cashiers wear caps, why is Circle K the only one that requires it?”

Another cashier sent Ching a photo on Friday showing a cap with the text: “No to wearing caps.” He asked Ching to post it on social media to raise awareness.

circle k
Photo: Luke Ching.

Ching said: “Circle K does not require shop staffers in some other countries to wear caps, so I don’t know why the Hong Kong company insists on this policy.”

“The worker’s body is even used to promote the company,” he added. “We should rethink whether the kind of image that the company wants to create is a necessary aspect of customer service.”

Chairs, water

Ching has been running a months-long campaign to secure seats for cashiers and security guards. He previously succeeded in pushing for changes in policy at corporations such as Wellcome supermarkets, Manning’s and Watson’s.

As public awareness on cashiers’ occupational health grows, Circle K came under fire earlier this month after a store assistant complained to local media that they were not provided with seats, despite advice from the Labour Department. Meanwhile, the store’s rival 7-Eleven changed the policy at its own initiative, Ching said.

labour department guide retail
The Labour Department’s guide to preventing health hazards for retail workers. Photo: Labour Department.

Circle K provided stools in its stores shortly afterwards. But Ching said many workers choose not to use the stools as they are unsure whether it is permitted. He added that the stools are also not high enough, so cashiers disappear from view if they sit down.

The activist expressed disappointment: “Circle K doesn’t seem to truly care about their frontline staff – it was more a response to media pressure.”

Meanwhile, some store assistants claimed they are only allowed to drink water inside staff rooms. “Some workers said it is an unwritten rule. But an unwritten rule is still a rule,” Ching said.

He said workers follow the rule because they fear that mystery shoppers – hired by Circle K or marketing companies – may write bad reviews if they drink in front of customers.

Ching said that he had been making enquiries to Circle K through its customer services department since last month, but he quoted workers as saying that Circle K recently issued an internal notice telling its frontline staff not to speak to civil groups.

“It is a serious issue that they attempt to cut the channel for frontline staff to communicate with others about their difficulties. If workers are isolated, they will be helpless and will not dare to speak up,” he said.

Retail industry

In the long run, Ching said it is important for retail workers to become more rights-aware and unite themselves. However, he recognised that unionising retail staff is difficult as workers of the same company are physically scattered across the city.

circle k convenience store
A Circle K store. Photo: Wikicommons.

“No one would resist their supervisor over a hat,” he said. “Usually they won’t question these so-called minor issues, like having no seats, being on standby during lunch hours and wearing caps. But these ‘minor’ issues will add up to make their work conditions difficult.”

He said consumers should also speak up for retail workers: “It is our role to tell companies that excessive customer service is not necessary.”

Ching urged the Labour Department to give more attention to the retail industry, saying that the government has mostly focused on the heavy industry regarding occupational safety.

The Retail, Commerce and Clothing Industries General Union has also demanded the government include leg fatigue in its list of compensable occupational diseases and mandate companies to provide seats to employees.

The Labour Department advises retail employers to ensure the safety of their workers by providing seats at their workplaces, but the guideline is not legally binding.

Circle K did not respond to HKFP’s enquiries by the time of publication.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.