Knowingly underpaid? John Lewis hit by cleaners' protest

Workers at co-operative told they will lose their jobs or have their hours cut by half

It is hailed as a socially responsible employer whose workers all have a stake in the company, and for many John Lewis is a paragon of ethical business. But for those who clean the floors, stairwells and toilets of the venerable department store, there is no share of the spoils.

Cleaners at the company's flagship store on London's Oxford Street are protesting against low pay, redundancies and cuts to hours, claiming they are being treated as "second-class citizens".

The 28-strong workforce have been told by their employer, subcontractor Integrated Cleaning Services (ICM) that half face losing their jobs owing to a "challenging economic environment". Working hours will be cut by half for those who remain.

Cleaner Elkin Avecedo said that some employees' shifts would be cut to just two hours a day.

"I have a wife and two children and another kid on the way – what can you take home to them on that? The company is cutting everyone's hours yet they expect us to do the same work as we were doing before."

Under its co-operative "partnership" agreement, John Lewis's 70,000 employees all have a say in the running of the business and share profits. However, third-party employees are excluded from the model, and the company says it holds no sway in the cleaners' dispute as ICM is subcontracted through a facilities firm, MML, which looks after its premises.

But the cleaners' union, Industrial Workers of the World, is calling on John Lewis to live up to its lauded principles by preventing job losses – and last Saturday staged the first of what it says will be a weekly noisy protest outside the store.

It is also demanding that ICM pay its staff the London Living Wage of £8.30 an hour, set by the Greater London Assembly (GLA) in recognition of the high living costs of the capital. Currently the cleaners earn the minimum wage of £6.08 per hour, which according to GLA calculations falls below the poverty line.

The union claims that ICM, which was taken over by the world's largest catering firm Compass last year, put in too competitive a bid to win the cleaning contract and that the shortfall is now being passed down in the form of staffing cuts.

"John Lewis are engaged in rank hypocrisy," said organiser Chris Ford. "They can't say they know nothing about it when they accepted the low bid for the tender."

He pointed to the company's pre-tax profits of £353.8m and its creation of 4,400 jobs in the past year. Today union representatives are due to meet ICM through conciliation service ACAS, but unless a deal is reached a ballot for strike action may be taken. ICM would not be drawn on the details of the dispute, but managing director Paul Rafferty said: "We are aware of the recent protest by some ICM employees and we take such matters very seriously." MML said it was looking at deploying affected employees at other sites. 

Within John Lewis, the campaign has prompted an outcry. A recent letter to the employees' internal publication suggested that some cleaners at other stores earn only £72.96 for working six shifts a week, and called for all subcontracted workers to be brought into the partnership.

A spokesman for John Lewis said it was "extremely concerned" by the allegations at the Oxford Street store and that an investigation was under way.