Waterstones says paying furloughed staff minimum wage ‘would not be prudent’

Business

Waterstones has told staff that furloughed workers will not receive any increase to their wages until shops can reopen, after a petition was launched calling on the book chain to help workers who are being paid below minimum wage on the scheme.

A petition signed by more than 1,500 people so far, including more than 100 Waterstones workers and backed by names including author Philip Pullman, has been published on Organise. Addressed to Waterstones managing director James Daunt and chief operating officer Kate Skipper, it says that the majority of Waterstones staff are employed either on or very close to the minimum wage, and that upon being furloughed, they find themselves “plunged beneath this line and into financial uncertainty”.

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme allows a company to claim 80% of an employee’s usual salary, but does not protect furloughed workers from falling beneath minimum wage.

The petition claims some Waterstones workers are “struggling to pay bills, borrowing money to make ends meet, turning to charity just to survive”. Testimonies from anonymous staff include a senior bookseller who has been with the company for 18 years, who had turned to food banks after seeing their monthly pay drop to £170 beneath minimum wage since being furloughed.

“I have a partner and two small kids to keep on that, and we’re struggling,” they wrote.

Another staff member, who has been with Waterstones for more than a decade, says they would not make rent this month, while another said they had been forced to turn to their housemate for help covering bills.

The petition points out that Waterstones’ owners, the hedge fund Elliott Advisors, paid £93.3m to to 107 staff in the year to end-December 2019.

“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, who asked to remain anonymous, told 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, Skipper told staff in an email that furlough had been “the lifeline which has prevented mass redundancies” for businesses like Waterstones.

“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 told the Guardian that “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.”

Book sales figures, which include online as well as high-street trade, have remained robust in the face of the pandemic. Last month, market monitor Nielsen BookScan reported that, despite the series of lockdowns around the UK, the volume of print books sold grew by 5.2% to 202m in 2020.