UK retailers enjoying the pre-Christmas rush were hit by a number of undercover activists calling for them to increase pay this year. The biggest retailers in the country have seen their labels disappear from merchandise and replaced with calls to pay their staff a living wage.
The actions started early in December, and activists are hoping they will continue well into the New Year sales. It comes as politicians and the public are waking up to the inconvenient truth that millions of people across the UK earn their living by working long hours in dead-end, low-wage jobs — and some of the worst offenders are the UK's most successful and profitable retail chains.
In another bleak year for British workers, median incomes fell again for the third year running. In 2013, incomes were 9 percent lower than 2007 and 4 percent lower than a decade ago. However, this average hides the true picture of working life on the breadline — if you just look at the incomes of the lowest earning 10 percent, this decrease doubles dips to a 8 percent.
Every fifth worker in the UK earns below the living wage, according to research by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation who found that the new face of poverty is now young, renting, and working people. Their research reveals rates of poverty within working age adults is the highest rate it has ever been.
While the UK's government has been furiously cutting the welfare bill in an attempt to tackle the budget deficit, which is at £14.1 billion ($22 billion), and talking up the amount of new jobs that have been created, the reality is that despite record employment levels ,14 million people now live in poverty, and rely on in-work benefits to survive, instead of just out of work benefits.
The legally enforceable national minimum wage in the UK is £6.50 ($10) an hour, while the "living wage" — a cross-party agreed rate calculated by the Center for Research in Social Policy stands at £7.85 ($12.20) an hour nationally, or £9.15 ($14.25) in London.
In the Croydon area of south London, a group of young activists who are part of the Citizens UK network got together to switch labels in Primark, Debenhams, Sports Direct, and Marks and Spencer. Katie, 18, (not her real name) was initially a little nervous about getting caught.
"I was in the first group and we went into Primark, and we were really lucky, because we found one display that said 'What a Gift' on it, so we were able to stick the living wage sticker on it," she told VICE News. "Because yeah — what a gift, giving your staff actual wage support they can actually live on. "
Katie said has been looking for a job for the past few years, and hopes to work in retail.
Amy Bradley with Share Action, one of the organizers of the nationwide campaigns, told VICE News that she worked at the supermarket chain Tesco for seven years and thinks most people don't realize how difficult life on minimum wage working for a retailer can be, particularly around Christmas.
"I would work a lot of weird hours over Christmas," she said. "Throughout the week your shifts could move around a lot. When I worked there, I worked both day and night shifts — sometimes within the same week — I don't have a family, so I can be flexible.
Bradley said she would work days, and then have the next day off, but then that night would work the nightshift starting at 10pm, then finish at 7am.
"It is a long night," she said. "Day shifts would be considered anytime from 6am until 10pm at night, but sometimes they could go on until midnight."
Bradley was promoted several times throughout her career in Oxfordshire, eventually becoming a store manager, but she had to leave the company when she moved to London and the only role they could offer was that of general assistant, which would just not be enough to keep her above the breadline with the costs of rent.
The rise of zero-hour contracts means that many people live in a state of chronic underemployment. With no guarantee of hours per week but still technically employed, they are not entitled to out-of-work benefits, and are therefore saving the government money.
Sports Direct boasts that it is the UK's most profitable sports clothing company, yet it pays store staff minimum wage and employs them on zero-hour contracts. Peter (not his real name) 18, was involved with an action inside the multi-mullion pound retailer.
"I went into Sports Direct, and we didn't get caught because the labels we had matched the color of theirs, and it was kind of hard to tell them apart so we they didn't notice," he said. "I think the main reason the company is not paying more than the minimum wage is just to make a much profit as they can. For the bosses, they are thinking more of their pockets, and more about their profit than the people who are working for them."
Sports Direct's group end of last published accounts show profits were up 9 percent and they wax lyrical about the benefits of the bonus and other packages their executive staff enjoy.
Luke Hildyard, the deputy Director of the High Pay Commission, told VICE News that share and equity incentive packages are often used to disguise the real rate being paid to top officials.
"The companies being targeted in #StopScrooging are part of this global trend of stripping working rights and holding down pay at the lower end — whilst at the same time happily lavishing executive bonuses on people at the top," he said.
"In Sports Direct the chief executive is paid around £150,000 ($233,000) I think, which is very little for a FTSE 100 company, but that is the figure they have to disclose," Hildyard added. "He will also have huge shareholdings, worth millions. The single figure (salary plus bonus) doesn't actually tell the full story of what he has made from the company, which would be in the millions. "
Despite the government's pledge to "tackle" zero-hour contracts, there are around 1.4 million workers currently operating in the UK at the most recent count at the end of November. Food banks, increasingly, are picking up the slack. Molly Hodson from the Trussell Trust, which runs a network of food banks across the UK, told VICE News that many people she meets are working low-paying jobs.
"Definitely some that need our food banks are in work," she said. "What we have seen recently is a rise in the number of people with low income as the primary cause of their crisis. The numbers of people who come to us citing low income has grown from 16 percent in the first half of the previous financial year to 22 percent in the first half of this financial year."
More than a 1,000 businesses operating in the UK have signed up to pay the living wage, and since the campaign started earlier this month, two of the retailers hit have agreed to meet activists to discuss the possibility of joining these slowly swelling ranks.
As the Christmas rush pushed profits, bonuses, and shares merrily up for the lucky few reaping the benefits at the top end of the pay scale, activists are hoping company executives will share some festive cheer and stop scrooging on pay for those working the long, arduous hours that earn these gains.
Follow Lara Whyte on Twitter: @larawhyte
All photos via VICE News