When a major high-street brand is top of the business bulletins, it rarely signals good news for staff. What’s depressing for investors – such as the scores of firms hitting the buffers, prompting 21,000 job losses in the first three months of 2018 – is likely to be even more depressing for workers who risk losing their livelihoods. And even the cash-spluttering takeover deals that get the trading floors excited are likely to spell “efficiency savings” – which all too often means redundancies too.
A case in point was the Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe, who apologised last month after he was caught singing the musical number We’re In The Money ahead of a TV interview. Coupe was in the studio to discuss his company’s multi-billion pound merger with Asda. Sainsbury’s shares – including Coupe’s own – had jumped 15 per cent. But the GMB union said his warbling was “utterly insensitive” while supermarket workers worried about their futures.
There could be no greater contrast than Pret a Manger’s shock announcement yesterday of a £1,000 bonus for all of its 12,000 workers. The company’s sale to Krispy Kreme owner JAB is reportedly worth £1.5 billion, so this is relatively small fry. But it’s still a rarity to see bosses share their rewards at all – more still in a seemingly indiscriminate fashion.
Without a doubt, this is good news for the chain’s workers. But it’s hardly a break with the new norm. On the contrary, it demonstrates just how entrenched retail exploitation has become – and the huge hurdles facing anyone seeking to change it.
Pret, after all, is well used to giving bonuses. They make up a key part of every worker’s pay – an extra £1 an hour if your branch passes the weekly mystery shop. Even when this is included, workers in the capital are still 95p an hour short of the London Living Wage. The extra £1,000 will no doubt help to pay the rent this year, but what about the next? Such “lump sum” awards have been used since time immemorial to stave off workers’ demands for consolidated pay rises.
In order to win the extra hourly pound, Pret “team members” must display the “Pret behaviours” of “Passion, Team Working and Clear Talking”. These denote a complex set of emotional performances. “The first thing I look at,” Pret chief executive Clive Schlee said in an interview, “is whether staff are touching each other – are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged?” At the same time, doing things “only for show” is on a list of forbidden behaviours along with “here for the money”, that was published and then taken down in 2013 .
After 12 weeks a worker will “graduate” to become a “team member star”, after which they “will also be expected to display the Open to Change behaviour”, a job description helpfully informs us.
The Pret website says little as to what change workers must be open to, but the jargon is familiar enough. As much as 21st Century businesses like to boast of their inclusivity, workers have less control over their labour than in any time since the 19th Century. Modern day chains are co-operatives only for as long as their workforces co-operate – or more accurately, acquiesce.
In 2012, a group of aggrieved workers banded together to create the Pret a Manger Staff Union. Two weeks later, a leading member was given the sack. Pret said he was “dismissed for misconduct” over “homophobic comments” made 12 months before, and it was nothing to do with his role in the union. Some were rather sceptical of this rationale.
Ultimately, the Pret worker receiving this bonus has as much to worry about as the Asda worker hearing We’re In The Money. Clive Schlee’s whims may be more generous and considerate than Mike Coupe’s, but this move is as performative as Pret behaviours. It’s just a shame the Pret boss doesn’t follow his own advice, and quit doing things “only for show”.