‘We can’t afford it’; Daunt hits back at real living wage campaign as petition approaches 8,000

‘We can’t afford it’; Daunt hits back at real living wage campaign as petition approaches 8,000

Waterstones m.d. James Daunt has warned the business cannot afford to pay the real living wage to its most junior staff and increase the pay of its most experienced booksellers, as nearly 8,000 people backed the campaign calling for the rise. 

Waterstones Piccadilly bookseller April Newton launched the petition on Organise last month, urging Daunt to pay booksellers the real living wage of £10.55 an hour for Greater London and £9 an hour for the rest of the UK, according to The Living Wage Foundation. The calculation for the real living wage is made according to the cost of living, based on a basket of household goods and services with a separate higher rate for London. Since Friday the petition has risen from 2,700 signatures to 7,957 at the time of writing. 

Authors including Kerry Hudson, David Nicholls and Philip Pullman are among more than 2,000 writers and trade figures who have signed an open letter supporting the campaign with Daunt ruling out the pay rise despite increasing pressure. 

Speaking on the PM show on Radio 4 yesterday (27th March) Daunt said: “It’s not especially difficult to raise those on the lowest level but we think in the interests of fairness and also because we are a business based and very much supported by our experienced booksellers, we would feel obliged and indeed firmly believe we should raise that of all our booksellers above that level, that then becomes extremely expensive. So it’s about having proper career progression and pay progression through the company which is most important to us, and that if you raise the bottom level becomes more than we can afford.

“[The real living wage] it’s not a government thing and I should actually acknowledge the government is doing sensible and good work, one of the few things at the moment they might be, in raising the national minimum wage which goes up next week by another 4.58% so we are having a gradual and actually meaningful increase at the lowest levels. What is called for is an even higher one and if you apply that level of increase, 14 odd percent through the business, then for people who employ lots and lots of people like we do that would be very expensive. It’s a relatively small proportion of our overall staff that are at the lowest level.”

Debating the issue, Samantha Ellis, author of How To Be A Heroine (Vintage), hit back saying Waterstones should just increase the pay of its lowest paid staff.

“I don’t see why you have to pay everybody more, I don’t see why you couldn’t raise, if it’s a relatively small number like James Daunt has just said, that you couldn’t raise it to the living wage for the people at that level. booksellers are saying that they can’t pay rent, that they have to live with their parents. They are saying there isn’t career progression and they can’t sustain living at that level,” said Ellis. “We authors feel an enormous amount go gratitude to booksellers and solidarity with them, we need them. They are fantastic. I love Waterstones, I love shopping there, I’ve done events there, they sell all my books, they’ve recommended my books, I think the way they curate their individual shops  and events is fantastic. I think everyone loves Waterstones but we just feel the people who are starting out at Waterstones should be able to live on their wages.” 

Entry level booksellers at Waterstones are promoted within two years, according to Daunt, and go on to become lead and expert booksellers. But Daunt, arguing against a company-wide rise, warned “imperilling the financial security of the business is not on”.

In 2018, one year after returning to profit, Waterstones paid more than £55million in wages. Waterstones' latest results showed the chain struggled for growth in the year to end April 2018, with the management team said to be distracted by the sale of the business which saw US private equity group Elliott buy Waterstones from the Russian investor Alexander Mamut immediately after the financial year closed.

“I think that everyone at Waterstones would rather we had higher pay throughout the company, I think genuinely we believe in the careers we are forging at Waterstones and that is where we should be investing our pay. We are not a business that is unaware of the pitfalls of the retail high street. We nearly went bankrupt not so long ago. We definitely don’t want to be back in that place,” said Daunt. “Imperilling the financial security of the business is not on, ensuring that we pay our people as well as we possibly can is clearly an aspiration we wish. We wish the base could be off something higher than the real living wage but in the meantime I think our key responsibility is to our experienced booksellers.” 

The minimum wage in the UK for under 25s currently stands at £7.38 per hour, with the national living wage, calculated at 55% of medium earnings, set at £7.83 for over 25s. From Monday 1st April, the statutory minimum for workers aged 25 and over, will increase by 4.9% to £8.21 per hour. Rates for younger workers will also increase above inflation and average earnings.