John Lewis’ cleaners in London, fed up with trying to survive on the minimum wage, balloted for strike action on Wednesday. Ninety per cent voted 'yes' and the strike will take place on Friday 13 July.
When the UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that employees should be able to own the firms they work for to ‘create happy employees and successful companies,’ the model he had in mind was that of department store John Lewis.
In essence a huge co-operative, the company consists of 77,000 ‘partners’ who all have a say in its running and a share in the profits. Despite the economic downturn it has continued to grow and for these reasons its admirers cite it as an example of ‘responsible capitalism’.
Behind the shiny image, John Lewis’ spirit of fraternity does not extend to everybody working in its shops. Inside its flagship store on London’s Oxford Street, the city’s main shopping boulevard, are some of the country’s lowest-paid workers: cleaners, who earn the minimum wage of £6.08 an hour.
Now half the team of 28 is facing redundancies, while the remainder could see their working hours cut by 50 per cent. They are resisting this move and at the same time demanding to be paid the London Living Wage, a non-binding standard of £8.30 per hour that reflects the high cost of living in the capital.
In the process their campaign has called into question the practices of one of Britain’s supposedly most ‘ethical employers’, while bringing to the fore the army of ‘invisible’ workers without whom London could not function.
‘We are being treated as second class citizens,’ says cleaner Elkin Acevedo. ‘How am I meant to bring anything home to my family after my hours are cut?’
The reason this can happen within such a vaunted co-operative is because the cleaning work is outsourced to a subcontractor. As a result the cleaners enjoy none of the rights or benefits of the John Lewis partnership. Instead their employer is another company, Integrated Cleaning Management (ICM), which says cuts are necessary due to economic conditions.
Chris Ford, organiser of the cleaners’ union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), points to John Lewis’ £353 million profits and the fact that ICM is now owned by the world’s largest catering company, Compass. He believes the cleaners are being squeezed because the subcontractor bid purposely low in order to win the contract and now cannot make ends meet.
‘They expect the cleaners to do the same amount of work with half the workforce. It is a false economy,’ he said. ‘ICM has cleaned the store for four years and there was no problem before’.
Yenny Arias, a single mother with three teenage children, has cleaned toilets in the building for ten years and spoke of a sense of ‘betrayal’ by John Lewis.
‘I spend £42 a week on a transport pass and it is a struggle already,’ she says. When my kids are on holiday they have to stay at home and I cannot afford luxuries for them. It is sad that John Lewis doesn’t care about the cleaners’.
Despite negotiations last week, the union says that ICM and the company to which it is contracted, MML, refused to offer anything other than 24p extra per hour with no agreements on redundancies. For their part, MML and ICM say it is ‘incorrect’ to say that no new deal was brought to the table. John Lewis meanwhile insists it has no part to play.
Buoyed by the recent successes of the IWW Cleaners’ Branch, which has won the Living Wage and prevented job losses at other sites in the city, the cleaners are now being balloted for strike action. Whatever the outcome of the dispute, the ideal of co-operative capitalism in the UK comes out tarnished.