Wilko is planning to reduce sick pay for its distribution and retail workers in a bid to tackle absence levels that were twice the industry standard.

The home and garden retailer said high sickness absence levels were “a real concern” and it wanted to take steps to bring the company sick pay into line with industry standards to remain competitive.

In a statement, the company said the move was “not related in any way to the Covid-19 outbreak”.

It said: “As a responsible business we are following PHE advice, should any team members need time off as a result of Covid-19, they will be paid company sick pay as an exceptional circumstance.”

Wilko released the statement after the GMB union said members were “furious” that it was turning on them and imposing draconian cuts.

The union said Wilko would slash sick pay for thousands of staff in distribution and retail and that there would be no company sick pay after the first occasion of sickness.

Anyone who has been with the company for less than a year would be entitled to no sick pay at all, the union claimed.

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And the GMB said the retailer only narrowly avoided strike action last year over changes to staff weekend working rotas.

Gary Carter, GMB national officer, said: “Picking a fight with your workforce by imposing draconian cuts to sick pay is no way for a modern employer to act.

“This will have a negative impact on both the business, while hard-working employees will be pushed into poverty because they won’t be able to pay their bills if they are sick.”

A Wilko spokeswoman said: “We have been talking to the GMB about our pressing need to reduce our high sickness absence levels for some time and to bring them in line with our competitors.

“We have a generous company sick pay policy which is over and above the market [average].

“In some areas of our business, absence levels are double that of the industry standard and this is a real concern for us.

“Our plan is to take steps to bring our company sick pay into line with the industry standard for retail to be competitive in the marketplace for our customers.”