When I saw the staff petition for Waterstones to become a living wage employer earlier this week – along with the open letter supporting it, signed by numerous authors of note – my first thought was, why hasn’t anyone done this before? I worked for Waterstones for more than a decade, and the issue of low pay for shopfloor staff is by no means a new one within the company. Managing director James Daunt’s dismissive response in the Guardian on Tuesday is one that will be familiar to every Waterstones bookseller, both current and former; full of distant promises and regretful rationalisations.
I started with Waterstones as a bookseller in 2006, and over the next 11 years worked in seven different branches, taking on a range of positions. I was a supervisor, trainer, healthy and safety auditor, and, by the time I left in 2017, I was running goods in operations at one of the company’s largest stores. In his response to the living wage petition, Daunt made mention of rewarding employees with a “stimulating job”, and while I can certainly say that the variety of roles kept my work interesting, there was always one constant: low pay. When I finally left the company in 2017 after a lengthy period of service, I was doing a job that left me utterly exhausted at the end of every work day, and earning roughly 60p an hour more than the minimum wage.
This is not a situation unique to booksellers, and my experience will be painfully familiar to anyone who has worked in the retail sector over a significant length of time, but it’s particularly disappointing that this practice persists in an organisation that acknowledges the cultural importance of its staff. The authors’ open letter in support of the petition celebrates Waterstones’ shopfloor staff as vital assets to the UK’s “literary culture and industry”. During my tenure, I heard similar plaudits time and again from the company’s own senior management team. Such glowing praise was always accompanied by the promise to raise bookseller wages at some unspecified point in the future.
More importantly, the signatories to the open letter (which include Kerry Hudson, Juno Dawson and Philip Pullman) note that being unable to offer a living wage to staff without redundancies or reducing staff hours – something that Daunt’s response suggests he believes to be the case for Waterstones – is “not a viable business model”. This is not simply a romantic ideal – staff who are struggling to pay rent and feed themselves are unlikely to be motivated in their work and more likely to take their skills and experience elsewhere, outcomes that undermine Waterstones’ sustainability in the long run. But there is a glaring ethical problem here, too.
Waterstones’ much-celebrated return to profitability has been engineered by Daunt, but built on the labour of booksellers, much of it inadequately remunerated and unrecognised. My experience with the company is far from unique, because for years now booksellers have had to take on additional workload and responsibilities as staff numbers (both on the shop floor and at head office) have decreased, almost all of it uncompensated. No longer do they simply shelve, operate tills and talk to customers about books. They are expected to be operations managers, security guards, childminders, baristas, cleaners, graphic designers, events managers, social media wizards and much more besides, but at a fraction of the pay for which those jobs would normally be contracted out. Theirs is the tireless effort by which the company remains afloat, and to say – as Daunt has – that a stimulating job should be a reward in itself is not simply patronising, it is exploitative.
Everyone should be paid a real living wage, but as the authors of this petition and their supporters point out, that reward is long overdue for the booksellers at Waterstones. For the company to continue reneging on its promises would be unsustainable, not just economically, but ethically too.
• Jim Taylor is a writer who also manages an independent bookshop in Edinburgh