Waterstones says it can not afford to pay a living wage to employees despite pressure from authors.
In the past few months, more than 1,300 writers, including the likes of Kerry Hudson, David Nicholls, Sally Rooney, and Val McDermid have shown support for a campaign that calls for Waterstones to provide its booksellers with a living wage.
The support comes in the wake of a petition created by Waterstones employees which has received over 8,000 signatures thus far. It demands that Waterstones’ managing director, James Daunt, should see that booksellers are paid a wage of at least £9 an hour, or £10.55 for those in the Greater London area.
“Working for a rate of pay that is below the living wage results in booksellers who are stressed, preoccupied and who have little spare time and energy to devote to buying books, reading them, and keeping up with news and trends in the industry – all of which activities are undertaken outside contracted hours, and which many staff consider to be (and are encouraged to view as) integral to their role,” reads the petition.
As The Guardian reports, on Monday, author Kerry Hudson released an open letter from writers who support the petition and the staff at Waterstones. It has since gathered many more signatures from writers, including the likes of Jackie Kay, Juno Dawson, and Holly Seddon.
“As authors, we recognise the vital role booksellers play in our literary culture and industry. Their skill, expertise and passion are a true asset, and this deserves to be acknowledged both through public recognition and financial remuneration,” the authors write. “There is anxiety from staff members about the potential for an increased wage being subsidised by staff redundancies or reduced hours. We wish to make it clear that authors will not support that as an outcome. A business that cannot offer a living wage to staff without redundancies or reducing hours [does not have] a viable business model.”
Hudson has since told The Guardian that she’s not surprised by the amount of support the letter has gained. “It’s not easy to stand up and ask for something like that and we wanted to add our voices to their courageous stand. I was shocked, as I think many were, to learn that this was not a standard at Waterstones,” she said. “While I appreciate there are many complexities in running a business, it feels that leaving those doing the frontline work to choose between, as one ex-staff member told me, ‘food and bus fares’, cannot be right.”
Daunt responded to the letter, saying: “There’s a long gap between wanting to do something and it being remotely sensible.” He added that the book chain is committed to a “progressive pay scale”, with promotions and and pay rises occurring more as booksellers gain experience.
“If you raise the bottom level really significantly, then everybody all the way up the company has to go up, and then we go bust, which isn’t very helpful,” he said. “If we were to move to a significantly higher starting rate, then we would have to take that money from our more experienced booksellers, or cut costs in another dramatic way. We’re simply not profitable enough to wave the magic wand and shower gold all around.”
Daunt also disagreed with the idea that not paying a living wage means that the business was not viable. “You’re saying we would be better off closing down than running the pay structures we are? For me, it’s how do you best advance salaries as a whole. You’d always want to have as high a base starting rate as you can, but it’s really important to have career progression and pay advancement through the company. That’s something we’ve been investing in.”
He added that he “wouldn’t for one second suggest that a career in bookselling is a career paved in gold.”
“To retain the best and most talented booksellers, we have to reward them, and we reward them as well as we can with pay, but we mainly reward them with a stimulating job,” he said. “I would maintain that we have made some pretty good advances, which have brought us to a place where we are financially secure, which is just as well given the environment we are in.”
Waterstones has noted that, of other similarly sized chains, only Ikea, Majestic, and Lush commit to paying its employees the living wages.