The John Lewis Christmas advert fails to win over staff denied furlough amid redundancies

“The brand is the most important thing – a lot of us just feel like a number now.”

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Ah, the John Lewis Christmas advert of 2020 has arrived. A heart-warming montage of cutesy animations passing on random acts of kindness. A child opens a magical umbrella that nudges a football out of a tree. A squishy heart replaces a flat tyre. A pigeon gives a hedgehog-wannabe-pigeon a baseball cap to fit in, or something.

Anyway, whatever’s going on in this splurge of generic wholesome community spirit set to a softly tear-jerking soundtrack, there’s one thing missing. A beaming claymation Chancellor of the Exchequer handing over a heart-shaped 80 per cent pay packet to workers shut up indoors to protect themselves from a pandemic.

As the New Statesman revealed last week, John Lewis has decided not to use the Treasury’s furlough scheme, which has been extended for England’s four-week lockdown and ultimately until next March.

The company is cutting 1,500 jobs from its head office – on top of the 1,390 roles already lost amid pandemic disruption this year, with the announced closures of eight John Lewis department stores and four Waitrose supermarkets closed down.

A John Lewis spokesperson told us last week that the business is keeping “the situation under review”, and will also be transferring John Lewis staff to work in Waitrose supermarkets, which are run by the John Lewis partnership – yet they declined to give a reason behind the decision to deny workers furlough.

[See also: John Lewis chooses not to furlough workers – exposing Rishi Sunak’s big mistake]

As the John Lewis Christmas advert, a stalwart in the festive calendar, was released and did the usual rounds today, John Lewis staff began asking themselves whether their company (in which they are all partners) is putting the brand first at the expense of their workers.

One shop floor worker at a store in the north of England tells me there is a “mismatch” between John Lewis’s public reputation and the way workers like him are being treated. John Lewis staff will not receive a bonus this year for the first time since 1953, for example.

“I’m one of the lowest-paid,” he tells me. “The bonus was a nice thing every year. Now they’ve spent more on an advert at a time when really that money could’ve been saved.”

John Lewis executive director Pippa Wicks defended the retailer’s decision to spend its budget on a Christmas advert this year in an interview with BBC Breakfast.

“The most important thing to them is the brand, a lot of us just feel like a number now,” the worker says. “And it looks good to the brand that they’re saving the government x amount of money by not using the Job Retention Scheme.”

Yet he believes this goes against government advice for people to work from home if they can during this period. “I’m a non-essential worker in a non-essential shop, yet I’m being told to do my normal shifts in an empty shop – sweeping the floors, emptying the bins and just hanging around,” he says. “You would go unpaid if you followed the government’s advice and worked from home.”

With three children at home, he also fears spreading the virus. “People can make themselves vulnerable by going around new people, into new environments. We’ve been shut all week and the infection rate is possibly going up. It’s a bit silly really.”

It seems the celebration of “kindness” signalled by the John Lewis advert hasn’t quite reached the shop floor this year.

[See also: Rishi Sunak has completed his gradual U-turn on the furlough scheme]

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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