A petition has been launched calling for Waterstones to top-up furloughed booksellers' pay to the minimum wage after recently filed accounts by the chain's owners, Elliott Advisors, showed 107 staff at the London hedge fund were paid a total of £93.3m.
For the year ending 31st December 2019, a period that saw Elliott's acquisition of Barnes & Noble, the UK firm had profits of just over £5m with turnover up by 5% to £142.6m, the accounts show. During that year Elliott's 107 London staff, including directors, were paid £93.3m, with the highest paid receiving £8.9m.
In response, a petition has been launched by a group of current and former Waterstones staff warning booksellers are “facing misery and financial insecurity” after being furloughed and seeing their pay fall below the minimum wage.
It states: “Waterstones' owners, Elliott Advisors, have just paid £93m in bonuses to a handful of London staff and look set to post some of the strongest returns on investments in a decade. On top of that we keep hearing news that the bookselling industry is growing. So further steps are needed to make sure that Waterstones staff have enough to survive these difficult times. The company should use its position to campaign for greater access to support and protection for all.”
Waterstones chief operating oficer Kate Skipper told The Bookseller she had “great sympathy” with the campaign and held out the prospect of pay rises in the future but stressed furlough had been the only way to avoid “mass redundancies” when so much trading had been wiped out by the pandemic.
So far, more than 650 people have signed the petition with some sharing their experiences since being furloughed, including a senior bookseller who said their family of four was now forced to use a food bank. Another said they needed to take out a crisis loan to pay their gas bill.
The petition organisers told The Bookseller they wanted to raise awareness of the “real and immediate” need of colleagues along with those in similarly paid roles after internal attempts to resolve the issue had “failed”.
They said: “It's clear from the strength of some of the responses that we are receiving that some in the company have seen a considerable financial impact and hold real fear for their immediate situations. Many more are only just managing to squeeze by, relying on the kindness of family and friends, but are worried that the will begin to fail to manage pretty soon."
They added: “Our aims are pretty simple. We understand the impact Covid has had on the business and that the high street is in a precarious position. We understand the future is uncertain. However there is real and genuine need right now and many low paid workers are falling between the cracks of the available support. We are not asking for wages to be topped up in full (we are not paid a great deal above minimum wage anyway), simply that those falling under minimum wage as a result of seeing their income drop to 80% are topped back up to the safety line that is minimum wage. We think this would make a massive amount of difference to so many situations.
“Secondly, and importantly, we're asking that the company use its clout as a successful UK business and its perceived standing with the public and the media to highlight the inadequacy of the current furlough scheme to the policy makers in government. and ask that more be done to protect those in the greatest need, not just campaign for better business support.”
Waterstones decided to close its stores during the current lockdown without offering a click and collect service, leading to the furloughing of many staff. A number of stores have also been closed over the past year, including two last week. Skipper told The Bookseller that, once workers were brought back they were in line for "well-deserved pay rises".
She said: “To state the obvious, the furlough scheme was introduced by the government for businesses badly compromised by the pandemic, where the alternative was redundancy. For businesses like ours, experiencing enforced and prolonged closure, furlough has been the lifeline which has prevented mass redundancies. 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.
“We find ourselves in a position where we must protect jobs and use the furlough scheme to do so. We must protect also the financial integrity of the company when we have no clarity for how long we will be prevented opening our shops. We have also little clarity on the duration and nature of government support. Importantly, the government proposes to reintroduce retail rates in April, even when we may not have reopened our shops. We have lost, of course, a full six months of trading, including the vital final four days leading to Christmas Day.
“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.
“The petition is one with which we have great sympathy. 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.”