John Lewis’ response to the living wage debate is a cop out

Posted on June 23, 2014

John Lewis is, by most definitions, a good brand. That’s why its reaction to demands to pay a living wage to contracted cleaners is more important than most. Right now, it looks like a cop out. As much as there is a great deal to admire about John Lewis, like every other brand that publicly claims to be ethical, it has a duty of care to its customers and all those who work for it, whether directly or on contract, to ensure that the terms of their employment are also ethical. It cannot, as it appears to have done, simply dismiss the welfare of a significant number of people who help to deliver the John Lewis brand experience as something that is beyond its control. A clean department store is a critical aspect of any serious retailer.

The most telling part of the company’s statement says, “…. we do not believe it is right for us to insist our suppliers or managing agents adopt pay policies that are different to our own by setting base pay levels well above the market rate….” Err, why? Because its difficult? Not good enough. Being ethical isn’t easy, that’s why the companies who do it properly deserve our respect.

If this statement is a true reflection of the John Lewis brand, it suggests a set of values that applies only in its own back yard and to its own kind. We’re alright Jack, thank you very much. I don’t expect the company to suddenly change its supplier contracts without serious consideration or to take the time to think through it properly, but neither do I expect a corporate citizen of such standing to dismiss the issue so casually. It should be leading by example and encouraging others to make the living wage a reality for thousands of underpaid workers. I do have some sympathy for the company because there are far worse offenders out there, but the brand’s highly publicised values come with significant responsibility.

The brand will probably ride out the storm and continue to prosper but as an exercise in the transparency and application of ethical business practices it is a sobering and disappointing matter. Ethical behaviour is an increasingly important aspect of modern business, and John Lewis is a proud standard bearer for much that is good about it. However, it comes with an immense responsibility to apply it right across its operations, and the company’s response has, so far, been underwhelming. The brand’s apparent indifference to the unacceptable gap between a living wage and ‘the market rate’ puts a question mark over the company’s commitment to genuinely ethical business practice. I simply expected better.

The petition and John Lewis’ full response to it can be seen here.

(The image at the top of this post is by EG Focus and gratefully used via a Creative Commons licence)

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