Waterstones recently told staff that any furloughed workers would not be seeing any increase to their wages until shops are able to reopen. This statement comes after a petition was launched calling on the book seller to help workers who are being paid under the minimum wage thanks to the furlough scheme.
The petition has thus far been signed by more than 1,500 people, including more than 100 Waterstones workers, it is also backed by the author Philip Pullman. It is addressed to the companies managing director James Daunt and its chief operating officer Kate Skipper, it says that as many of the companies staff are employed at or very near to minimum wage being put on the furlough scheme has now “plunged [them] beneath this line and into financial uncertainty”.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme allow a company to furlough a worker and the government will ensure that employee gets 80% of their wage, however it does not protect an employee from falling beneath the minimum wage.
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The petition claims that some Waterstone employees are therefore “struggling to pay bills, borrowing money to make ends meet, turning to charity just to survive”. Testimonies from some anonymous staff include a senior bookseller who has worked for the company for over 18 years and who know finds themselves turning to food banks in order to survive after their monthly earnings have dropped £170 beneath the minimum wage threshold.
“I have a partner and two small kids to keep on that, and we’re struggling,” they wrote.
Another employee has said they won’t be able to make their rent payment this month, while another said they’ve had to turn to friends and roommates to help cover their bills.
The petition stresses that Waterstones’ owners, the hedge fund Elliott Advisors, paid out over £93m to just 107 staff members at the end of the 2019 financial year.
“We understand the impact that Covid has had on the business and that the high street is in a precarious position. We are not asking for a full top-up, not that we are paid a great deal above minimum wage – simply that incomes are made back up to this safety line,” the bookseller who organised the petition said in a statement to the Guardian.
“It is not our intention to damage or attack our company. We are dedicated to our jobs and adore our colleagues, hold great belief in the product we sell and love the people and customers that we encounter daily. Rather we set up the petition with the aim of raising awareness of … the real and immediate need many of our booksellers, as well as millions of other low-paid workers in various sectors, are experiencing.”
In response to this petition Kate Skipper told staff in a mass email that furlough had been “the lifeline which has prevented mass redundancies” for their business.
“I say this in no way to diminish the stress and strain that being on furlough creates, nor to ignore the financial hardship that accompanies it,” she wrote, adding that the chain planned a 2.75% pay rise from 1 April 2021 – or from when it can reopen the majority of its shops. This follows a pay rise last April.
She said that petitions “provoke considerable social media and other reporting on Waterstones, much of it damaging. We regret this, and regret especially also if any bookseller feels unable to discuss their concerns, whether with their HR representative, anyone from the retail team, myself or any of the management team. I realise this is an unbelievably tough and desperate time for so many people but to continue to protect the business, and thereby importantly to deliver our aim to pay more, we need to survive – and ultimately to prosper. Please consider how best that can be achieved.”
Skipper also said that the company has “we have great sympathy” with the petition. “Only the extreme circumstances of prolonged, enforced closure of our shops, with no certainty of the timing of their reopening, has caused the furlough of our booksellers in this manner,” she said.
“It would be much better if we were in a position to pay our booksellers their full salaries, even as we keep our shops closed. With no clarity for how long this crisis will last, this would not be prudent. We look forward to reopening and bringing our booksellers back to work. Then we will have certainty and are pleased that we will be able to give well deserved pay rises.”
Despite stores being closed however online sales of book have remained steady during the various UK lockdowns. Last month the industry monito Nielsen Bookscan reported that the volume of print books actually grew by 5.2% to 202m in 2020.