Waterstones m.d. James Daunt has said he is "sympathetic" to the real living wage campaign, after sitting down with booksellers for two hours to discuss the issue. But he stressed some staff at Waterstones have received pay rises in the last eight months amid a struggling high street.
Daunt has found himself at the centre of a row over the real living wage, with more than 9,000 staffers signing an Organise petition and more than 2,000 signing an open letter calling for better pay at the chain.
Earlier this week the Waterstones m.d. sat down for two hours with lead campaigner April Newton and some of her supporters at Waterstones Picadilly to discuss the campaign and the book of staff experiences of living on a low wage. Forty anonymous employees shared their testimonies with reports of staff considering second jobs, cutting back on food and struggling with mental health.
Discussing the meeting, Daunt told The Bookseller: “We are sympathetic to the call and very sympathetic to the notion that booksellers should be paid better but there is an equation to be had to what is a sustainable level of profit for the business and whether it’s wise to inflate the cost at the base rate at the moment when there is a lot of peril on the high street.”
Waterstones living wage campaigners
An estimated 1,900 of the retailer’s 3,100 workers are paid below the real living wage of £10.55 an hour for the Greater London area and £9 an hour for the rest of the UK. The calculation for the real living wage, according to The Real Living Wage Foundation, is made according to the cost of living, based on a basket of household goods and services with a separate higher rate for London.
Statutory minimum wage increased 4.9% on 1st April from £7.83 to £8.21 and Daunt added Waterstones employees were also given a pay rise in September. Relatively few retailers pay the real living wage with Ikea, Lush and Majestic Wines among them, according to The Real Living Wage Foundation.
He said: “There was a 3% pay rise in September and the 4.9% rise came in, in April. Obviously we remain at the lowest ranks with pretty inadequate pay. I don’t believe booksellers pay is adequate, it’s not adequate at Waterstones but it’s not adequate anywhere. I don’t belittle the cry for a higher wage in any respect and I think the conversation with the living wage campaigners internally has been sensible but there has to be a collective effort to make sales go up not down right now.”
As one former bookseller called on staff to unionise in the New Statesman, wage campaigner Newton sent a mass email to the Organise petition community, writing: “James was shocked at some of the information we shared, especially how hard it is regarding the struggle to actually make a career as a bookseller with Waterstones. He began to understand the financial pressure his staff are under, and how that is affecting our work. We told him of the highly skilled colleagues we know who have left the company because of pay, and of the difficulties faced by those who have stayed because we love our jobs.
“Every bookseller who came to that meeting did a fantastic job representing you all, and James Daunt opened up as we spoke, commiserated with us and agreed that the problems we presented to him are unacceptable. It felt like we genuinely got through to him, and have opened up channels of communication through the business that have been missing for a very long time.”
The Waterstones' boss has previously warned the company’s future is not yet secure and says the row has "obscured" an improving situation at the chain.
Daunt’s warning about the high street comes after PwC research found a record number of shops closed in Britain last year with 16 stores closing a day, with bookshops in general bucking the trend.
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