It was all whoops and cheers and high-fives in John Lewis’s flagship store yesterday, as some of the company’s near 85,000 staff celebrated a bumper bonus of 17 per cent after record profits were announced. Their good fortune in working for this co-operative giant was recognised by Charlie Mayfield, the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership. “Retail is no longer a commodity game,” he said. “The people who succeed are the ones who really add value.”
Well, up to a point. Outside, it was a different story. Fifty cleaners, customers, and partners – including one dressed as John Spedan Lewis, the founder of the partnership – conducted an amicable protest. Their complaint was that, despite promising to look into it, John Lewis still doesn’t pay its cleaners a Living Wage (£8.55 in London) on the understandable but unjust grounds that they work for a contracted cleaning company, called ICM.
Now I should make plain straight away that there is no suggestion of malevolent behaviour here; rather, a fantastic opportunity is being missed by a company which ought to be leading the way on this issue. In yesterday’s announcement, it declared profits of £409.6m for the year up to 26 January. If it devoted around 0.5 per cent of that to raising the pay of its outsourced cleaning staff, it would do so much more than merely transform the lives of hundreds of cleaners and their families – though that’s not a bad start.
It would also challenge the conventional wisdom that says outsourced staff don’t count. Across Whitehall and whole swathes of the country, a cleaners’ revolt is brewing, stirred by campaigning group Citizens UK, in which workers who rinse toilet bowls and wipe dirty basins say, boldly, that they matter, too; that if they work within the same four walls as other staff, they deserve better pay.
This would be true to the founding ideals of Spedan Lewis, who wanted a company that delivered for all its staff, and certainly didn’t discriminate against outsourced staff in the way the current management did in its recent “Who is a Partner?” exercise. In a letter to Citizens UK dated 8 January, which I have seen, the company said that “cleaning is an area... specialist companies are better placed than us to provide”.
And think of the reputational benefit to the company, in championing an initiative that proves there are social solutions to social problems, while raising the income of the poor, and in so doing reducing the burden on taxpayers by lowering welfare payments.
What is at stake here is the future of a brilliant idea – the Living Wage – and its marriage to another one: the co-operative model. In the context of closures at former High Street stalwarts like HMV, Jessops, Comet and JJB, John Lewis stands apart, a great British institution showing that another way is possible. Its refusal to pay cleaners a Living Wage is a needless stain on that deserved reputation; and, if removed, could help to cement it in perpetuity. So why not do it? After all, it can afford to.