It takes the average Topshop cleaner about a week to earn enough money to buy a Topshop Boutique trench coat. Low-wage workers are holding a protest this Saturday 12th March outside the Oxford Street flagship store in London, against being paid what they consider to be poverty wages. Their goal is to pressure Arcadia Group – the company that owns Topshop and recently reported an annual profit of over £250million – into paying cleaners and shop-floor staff the living wage: £9.40 in London and £8.25 elsewhere in the UK.
In its Code of Conduct, Topshop's official line is to "fully subscribe to the concept of the 'living wage'". We spoke to some of the cleaners planning to protest, alongside the United Voices of the World (UVW) union, about what it's like to earn less than £800 per month in the country's most expensive city.
"The supervisor used to call me 'donkey' in English. Probably because it was quite an unusual word and he didn't think I'd understand it," says Susana, a 40-year-old cleaner and single mum. "He also kicked a bucket at me, and that was the last straw." As a cleaner, Susana is contracted by company Britannia Services Group to work at Topshop.
Roberto has also been working as a cleaner for three and a half years, along with two other jobs. At a meeting held on Wednesday, he and other low-wage staff were offered £7.50 per hour by the contractor in a last-effort attempt to dissuade them from protesting on Saturday. "I spoke on behalf of my colleagues on the unfair distribution of hours," Roberto says. "Why do they hire new people when there are old people there who could have done more hours? Some people want [the £7.50] but most were not happy; we know we could get more, and deserve more."
UVW have been struggling to gain the support of shop-floor assistants at Topshop, who are also on poverty wages. "There's a real culture of fear," Roberto says. "A lot of people are afraid of having their hours cut so they are not showing their faces or publicly supporting the campaign."
But does he think they'll succeed? Roberto pauses. "I'm sure we can win our campaign. We're not going to win on Saturday, but how ever many times it takes we can win, if we have to go back 100 times, then 100 times it will be."
At the time of writing, an online petition fronted by Susana and asking Topshop to pay all staff a real living wage had picked up around 5,100 signatures, and only about 300 people were expected to turn up the protest.
Susana sounds dead-set on the campaign anyway. "I earn roughly £720 a month. £300 goes towards childcare, my travel card is £130. It's just not enough to live on in a dignified way. The hours are also constantly changing, so I cannot allocate money for rent and food because I don't know how much I will earn." Both she and Roberto feel that the living wage could help in feeling respected at work and more able to survive poverty-free.
But there's a bigger picture here. The UK retail sector is forecast to shed 900,000 jobs by 2025, because the national living wage and apprenticeship levy will have become too costly, according to the British Retail Consortium. The tired excuse of "we cannot afford it" only serves to highlight the unfair distribution of profits that is considered the norm.
After the forced increase in the minimum wage starts in April, reports have surfaced detailing how cutting overtime and weekend pay rates may be the route to companies making back money spent on paying a healthier wage. Is it worth it?
"£7.20 is not enough. Especially when there is a rent bubble in London," Susana says, and Roberto agrees. "This increase looks like an election stunt so that people might vote in favour. I call on all companies to pay a fair wage. I call on everybody who is in these same circumstances to stand up and fight and reclaim your right to demand a living wage."
We put the questions to Arcadia Group, about Topshop low-wage staff feeling they aren't paid the living wage that the shop 'subscribes to". Here is their statement, in full:
"At Arcadia we value and appreciate our staff and are proud of the contribution they make to our business. In the interests of transparency and in response to some factually incorrect allegations made by United Voices of the World, we wish to confirm that all our employees are paid hourly rates which are legally compliant.
"In central London we currently pay rates well above the UK Government's National Minimum Wage. For us, it is essential to remain competitive and in line with other major retailers to attract, grow and retain the best people."
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