It is known as one of the friendliest chains on the high street – with smiling, solicitous baristas who take the pain out of early mornings for millions of office workers.
Pret A Manger’s commitment to sociability is so intense that it even allows staff to vote on whether new recruits should be allowed to stay, based on their chirpiness.
But now the sandwich and coffee chain’s cuddly reputation is being challenged, with growing calls for the British firm to pay its employees – a large majority of them immigrants – a living wage.
A recent article in the London Review of Books (LRB) criticised the chain’s “panoptical regime of surveillance and assessment”, a reference to the 17-point plan circulated to all staff setting out “Pret Perfect” behaviour. The plan laments employees who are “just here for the money” and those who think “only about their own needs.”
The LRB piece feared it was “difficult to believe there isn’t something demoralising, for Pret workers perhaps more than most in the high street, not only in having their energies siphoned off by customers, but also in having to sustain the tension between the performance of relentless enthusiasm at work and the experience of straitened material circumstances outside it.”
But now these employees are beginning to demand more in return for their smiles, with a new union, the Pret a Manger Staff Union (Pamsu), urging pay rates to be hiked to a the living wage of at least £7.45 per hour or £8.55 in London.
The company’s starting rate is currently above the national minimum wage at £7.35 per hour in London, lower outside the capital.
A statement from the radical union said it believes “all Pret workers deserve enough pay and enough guaranteed hours to live on”.
It read: “But we know that Pret won’t listen just because we ask nicely. We need you to get involved: join the union, talk to your workmates about the campaign, and attend the upcoming public actions which will put pressure on Pret to give us the wage and the hours we need.”
The firm, which opened in London in 1986 has always been proud of its approach to customer service, even if it has baffled some. In 2011, as it gained a foothold in the Big Apple, the New York Times reported with apparent incredulity: “At some fast-food outlets in the city, cashiers might fling your cheeseburger across the counter, Frisbee-style. At Pret, they compliment your earrings.”
But that does not apply to every Pret staff member. The firm recently denied accusations of union busting after a leading figure in Pamsu was fired because of what the company said was homophobic behaviour, rather than his union affiliation. In an interview with a freelance journalist, Andrej Stopa said he helped set up the union because colleagues had had “problems with managers”.
He said he was summoned to a disciplinary hearing two weeks after telling Pret a Manger he was setting up the union and fired soon after. He denies using homophobic comments. Pret a Manger employs a high proportion of foreign workers, who Mr Stopa said were “less aware of their rights, so it’s easier for them to exploit them and to use them to do the work that British workers wouldn’t do”.
In any case, its approach clearly works. Last year they announced record sales of £377.3m across nearly 300 shops.
A spokesman for Pret a Manger said: “Pret pays on average £7.25, including Mystery Shopper Bonus, which is well above the minimum wage and is more than our competitors. We will continue to review our hourly rates to ensure we continue to be an attractive employer.”
Pret behaviours: The banned list
Needs close management
Becomes flustered when the heat is on
Does things only for show
Is just here for the money
Uses jargon inappropriately
Is complacent about the business
Agrees blandly with others
Over relies on email
Is moody or bad-tempered
Doesn’t interact with others
Thinks only about their own needs
Is intolerant of others