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London: What it Means to Work on the Shop Floors of Oxford Street
London Evening Standard
David Cohen

March 1, 2011
View the Original Article

We spend billions in Europe's busiest shopping street, yet what do those who serve us earn? David Cohen investigates which stores pay the London Living Wage.

There was a time when a trip down Oxford Street wasn't exactly a fun experience. In the late 1700s, the street served as a backdrop to the grim final journey of condemned prisoners from Newgate Prison, who were taken by ox cart along its length to be hung at the gallows at Marble Arch.

Nowadays, of course, crowds swarm here for a different reason. At 1.5 miles long, Oxford Street is the busiest shopping boulevard in Europe, attracting 200 million consumers who open their purses to the tune of £4 billion a year. It boasts 300 stores and the choice that awaits shoppers emerging from Oxford Circus Tube station to indulge in retail therapy is unmatched in the UK.

But what is it like for the people who are paid to serve us? Almost 50,000 people work on the street, a hugely cosmopolitan workforce boasting every nationality from Albanians to Zimbabweans, the majority of them employed at rock-bottom wages on the shopfloor. Do these smiling, obliging workers - who we rely on to make our shopping experience a pleasant one - earn a living wage? And when it comes to choosing an employer, are there "goodies" and "baddies"?

I decided to hit the street to find out what a starting sales assistant over the age of 20 will earn. I asked the retailers, and when they declined to tell me, citing that such information was "classified", I got it from the workers themselves. What I discovered is this: The best paymaster on the street is unexpectedly neither John Lewis nor Marks & Spencer but Body Shop, owned by French cosmetics giant L'Oréal, which starts its sales assistants on £8.65 an hour.

Only two of the 300 stores on the street pay the London Living Wage (LLW) of £7.85 an hour, which is effectively the £5.93 national minimum wage adjusted for the higher cost of living in the capital. They are Body Shop and Selfridges (£8.39). John Lewis pays £7 an hour, though its package is worth £8.05 an hour when you include the partnership bonus (15 per cent last year), and Marks & Spencer is just 3p shy of the living wage at £7.82.

Sir Philip Green might have paid himself a £1.2 billion dividend a few years back but pay at his mega-profitable giant flagships Dorothy Perkins, Top Man and Topshop ranges from just £6 to £6.50 an hour, no better than starting pay at the "adults only" Harmony sex shop (£6.50) propping up the seedier eastern end of the street.

On the whole, the western Marble Arch end populated by the high-end stores pays better than the Tottenham Court Road end, characterised by minimum-wage souvenir shops and bargain retailers.

Alarmingly, some shops, such as Vanya Nails ("pedicures £25"), pay staff £3.12 per hour, just over half the £5.93 national minimum wage.

Overall, the differential between the best and worst paying stores amounts to £5,657 a year, or 45 per cent, with most stores paying the bare minimum. And we're not talking about a short period before they begin to earn decent money either. One 27-year-old assistant in his "Top Man crew" T-shirt told me he'd started on £6.20 an hour four years ago - and was still earning "under £7" an hour today. "You cannot live in London on £7 an hour," he lamented, "but when you ask for a raise, they don't want to know."

Why does it matter? A recent Rowntree Foundation study found that 58 per cent of impoverished children in the UK are from homes where a parent is working, and so the first step to addressing deprivation and inequality in London - where 40 per cent of inner-city children live in poverty - is to pay a living wage. The worst offenders are said to be the retail sector, where paying poverty wages is part of the business model.

The living wage campaign, launched 10 years ago by London Citizens, seeks to challenge this. In the past few years it has signed up 140 organisations, achieving success in the City, City Hall, the public sector and higher education, lifting 8,865 working families out of poverty by raising their wages by an estimated £62 million in five years.

But to date, not a single Oxford Street store - indeed, not a single retailer in the capital - has signed up. London Citizens spokesman Matthew Bolton, 27, says: "The people we've helped so far tend to be cleaners or catering staff, but retail - which employs 367,000 people in London and is the biggest poverty wage payer in the capital - is the next frontier. Seventy per cent of people in retail are over 24 and one-fifth are over 50, so the impact on families with children is profound. We are in discussion with both M&S and John Lewis and hope to persuade them to become ethical flagship living wage champions in London."

At Marks & Spencer, where customer assistants start just below the living wage, a spokesman confirmed: "We're currently meeting the living wage campaigners but at this stage we're not committing to paying the living wage." The store's refusal to stump up another 3p an hour for shopfloor staff is juxtaposed against the pay package of its CEO Marc Bolland, who last year reaped £7.3 million in cash and shares, 415 times higher than his army of sales assistants.

At John Lewis, where starting pay for a sales assistant is £7 an hour and £6.45 for catering staff, a spokesman said: "All staff are assured a 'profit-share bonus' which has not fallen below eight per cent in 40 years. Our partnership rules stipulate that the maximum multiple for the highest-paid partner - [chairman Charlie Mayfield earned £868,000 last year] - should be no more than 75 times the average salary of non-management staff. We are in dialogue with the LLW campaign and share its objectives to reward employees fairly."

But Bolton says the big retailers need to "wake up to their responsibilities" to guarantee a living wage to their workers "if they want to be taken seriously as socially responsible employers".

Case study: Retail sales, the harsh reality

Magda Kasprowicz, 21, is an A-grade student doing her masters in criminology at LSE. She cannot afford to rent on her own, and lives with her father, an unemployed ambulance driver, her mother, a care assistant, and her 18-year-old brother in a two-bedroom flat in Shepherd's Bush.

Magda says: "I started working on Oxford Street to support myself while I studied. My first job was as a part-time sales assistant with Tie Rack, where they paid me the minimum wage. It was mundane, boring work - serving customers, stacking shelves, taking payments - and I received zero increase in pay in two years.

"I used to wonder how people could afford £30 for a tie when it cost me a whole day's wages. My friend, a young mother, also worked for the minimum wage on the street but she gave up because she said it worked out better for her to be on benefits than to work.

"Last summer I moved to Next because they offered me a full-time job and better pay but I absolutely hated it. One day I came in a few minutes late and straight away I got a written warning.

"Next like to portray themselves as amazing employers but the managers treated us sales assistants with little respect and for the slightest thing you were told off like a naughty schoolgirl. We were expected to be there for nine hours a day but only paid for seven-and-a-half hours. After three weeks I was getting splitting headaches, so I handed in my notice.

"The staff turnover at these retailers is massive and the feeling is that you are being exploited for poverty wages because there is always someone else willing to fill your job. I used to love Oxford Street as a place to shop but now I hate it. I never want to work in retail again and would hope to get a job with the Metropolitan Police as a criminologist once their recruitment freeze is lifted."