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Why I'm Calling on John Lewis to Pay Its Cleaners the Living Wage

18/08/2015 22:43 BST | Updated 18/08/2016 10:59 BST

In June last year, with the help of friends and family, I started a petition on Change.org to the board of John Lewis which has so far attracted almost 150,000 signatures.

The impetus for the petition was created by a lack of response from the Managing Director and the CEO to letters from loyal and longstanding customers, criticising the company's decision to refuse to pay the London Living Wage to its outsourced cleaners, despite having achieved record sales over the Christmas period 2013. The cleaners, represented by the IWGB trades union, were already in dispute with the contractor ( part of the Compass Group) over pay rates and other terms and conditions and had won concessions over proposed job losses.

A consistent response from people signing the petition has been one of shock and disbelief that the John Lewis company which promotes itself as a fair and ethical retailer should treat a part of its workforce so unfairly. A great number of customers and other members of the public were unaware that the cleaners were outsourced. Posts on the petition website revealed a confusion about the rights and responsibilities of outsourcing companies and their contractors. There was also, not surprisingly, widespread perplexity about the meaning of and difference between the national minimum wage, the living wage and the London living wage.

The John Lewis board responded to the petition by stating that it was the company policy to pay the market rate for the job with any supplement being justified by performance; that it did not support the Living Wage model as being the best way to achieve fair pay; and that it was inappropriate for the company to instruct its contractors on their pay policies. This last point was perceived as disingenuous by petitioners.

Since the petition began, customers have supported the cleaners in two protests inside and outside the Oxford St store and cleaners have supported two customer protests in London and Cambridge. ( Following an arrest at one of these protests in December 2014, two members of the cleaning staff will appear in court on 24th/25th August 2015).

Protesting customers engaged other customers and permanent staff (partners) in a dialogue about the plight of the cleaners. Again, there was a sense of outrage that the company would outsource its workforce and severely disadvantage them - no pension scheme and sickness pay limited to statutory sick pay for full time staff only.

A significant issue is the fact that by being outsourced, the cleaners are not eligible to receive the annual bonus paid to all permanent staff (partners). As protesting customers spoke to other customers and partners it became clear that other parts of the John Lewis group work force are outsourced and significantly, that many of the permanently employed staff have also expressed the wish to receive the living wage rather than the annual bonus. The company's in-house magazine Gazette published letters from staff noting that the many perks offered by the company were not an acceptable alternative to fair pay. It became clear that some staff are paid barely above the national minimum wage and even with the bonus were not receiving an annual salary equivalent to the living wage. The bonus of course, is paid as a percentage, benefitting the higher paid staff, and board.

The new national living wage (set out in the 2015 budget) of £9 to be paid by April 2020 is less than the London living wage ( as set by the Living Wage Foundation) being currently sought in 2015 (£9.15), and of course it applies only to over 25s. So despite being acclaimed as a radical step in challenging the problem of the UK's low wage economy, there is a long way to go to effectively raise "hard working" Londoners out of poverty. The government's proposed National Living Wage is too little over too long a phase in. And despite government's cut in corporation tax to assist companies there will need to be careful monitoring of job cuts.

Meanwhile IKEA has become the first national retailer to promise to pay at least £7.85 to all its staff and £9.15 to London staff from April 2016.