2020 was a hard year for bookstores, for obvious (pandemic) reasons, and the UK-based retailer Waterstones is no exception: last March, it closed its 280 UK branches due to health concerns and the majority of staff were placed on furlough. The UK’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme allowed the government to pay Waterstones 80% of furloughed workers’ wages, but the CJRS has one problem: it doesn’t prevent workers’ pay from falling under the minimum wage.
The majority of Waterstones staff are paid minimum or close to the minimum wage, so many furloughed Waterstones workers receiving only 80% of their wages are struggling to get their basic needs met. This is particularly galling knowing that Waterstone’s owner, the hedge fund Elliott Advisors, had a particularly strong year and paid its 107 London staff members over £93 million in bonuses—with the highest paid staffer, rumored to be Gordon Singer, son of Elliott Advisors’ founder, receiving £8.9 million.
Thus, Waterstones’ furloughed booksellers have launched a petition asking Waterstones to boost booksellers’ pay to the minimum wage—not even to full pay, just to make sure every employee is above the minimum. Says the petition, “Elliott Advisors . . . looks set to post some of the strongest returns on investments in a decade. The company should use its [financial] position to campaign for greater access to support and protection for all . . . we fear that if the company does not better protect us, we will lose dedicated and experienced members of our workforce.”
Many Waterstones booksellers have contributed testimonials to the petition about the hardships they’ve endured since being furloughed. One furloughed employee has had to apply for a crisis loan to pay a gas bill; another has lost all their savings; others have had to seek insecure, short-term work elsewhere. Says one Senior Bookseller at Waterstones who has worked there for eighteen years, “Being furloughed has seen my monthly pay drop to £170 beneath minimum wage. I have a partner and two small kids to keep on that, and we’re struggling. Not for the first time we have had to use a food bank. Things are getting more expensive and more uncertain.”
Seems like the right thing to do! Read—or sign—the Waterstones staffers’ petition here.