By Jessica Smulders Cohen
Having recently returned to the retail sector after a long period of free-lancing and being too unwell to work, it struck me how mortified my manager-to-be was at having to admit to me how little she had on offer in terms of wages. She quickly tried to rectify things by explaining that I would get free uniform pieces and other favorable discounts on the merchandise I would be selling, as well as the opportunity to earn significantly more per hour with the company’s bonus scheme. Of course I knew all of this already, however, since the company had grown substantially since I had last worked for them, I thought sales assistant wages might have been raised to reflect this, given that it’s largely thanks to us that any clothing company’s clothes get sold at all. Also, getting lovely clothing half price is indeed a bonus, but it should not have to make up for the fact that one technically doesn’t have enough money to both pay rent and eat every month. Unfortunately, as I found out by scrolling through the jobseekers’ platform www.indeed.co.uk, this seems to be the norm.
It was this that suddenly got me thinking. What with the rise of sustainability talk in the fashion industry, and campaigns like Fashion Revolution, Fashion for Good and Labour Behind the Label getting real traction and media attention, why was nobody paying any attention to the underpaid workers at the end of the fashion supply chain, who are living and working on their doorstep, and who they probably interact with regularly? I thought I must just not know about it, or companies must on the whole be paying a decent wage, otherwise, surely, it would be something that was discussed and campaigned for more regularly. To my surprise, it wasn’t. I emailed the above-mentioned organizations asking if they knew of anyone working for these workers’ rights. They came back blank. There are no longer unions in this sector active in this country. So I decided to investigate further.
What with the rise of sustainability talk in the fashion industry, and campaigns like Fashion Revolution, Fashion for Good and Labour Behind the Label getting real traction and media attention, why isn’t anybody paying any attention to the underpaid workers at the end of the fashion supply chain, who are living and working on their doorstep, and who they probably interact with regularly?
Here in the UK, we are lucky that there is something called the National Living Wage (recently renamed from the previous National Minimum Wage), which is the legal requirement when it comes to paying employees, no matter what the work entails. There are a few exceptions based on age (under 25s get less) but all in all one should be receiving £7.83 in exchange for an hour’s work (as of April 2019 this will increase to £8.21 per hour). Now, everyone knows that London is a particularly expensive place to live, so much so (compared to living anywhere else in the country) that a London Living Wage has been calculated to be £10.55 per hour (www.londonlivingwage.org.uk/calculation). This is a substantial £2.72 more per hour. However, as this is not a legal requirement, the reality of the situation is that most low wage earners, who get the National Living Wage but not the London Living Wage, are technically not earning enough to live. Just let that sink in for a minute.
It was at this point that I got in touch with the Living Wage Foundation directly, as they only had one high end, luxury fashion retailer accredited on their website (it’s Burberry, by the way). Surely there was more than one, I thought. I hoped. As it turns out, there are only a handful more. I went on to meet with Jessica Goble (I’ll refer to her as Jess from now on) from the Living Wage Foundation in person to find out why, and she explained that it is because not everyone seeks accreditation, mostly because they would not meet the requirements. For example, even though they might pay their sales assistants a London living wage, their cleaning staff do not receive more than the minimum. Therefore they cannot be accredited. I was taken aback by this. I wanted some hard figures to really put this in perspective for me, and Jess kindly obliged. The table below is part of an annual KPMG report she shared with me, which looks at the levels of low pay across the UK. This is the data specifically on sales assistants. She noted that they are the largest group of employees who are paid less than the living wage, although it is not the job type with the highest proportion of low paid workers (those would be the cleaning staff).
I was somewhat relieved to see that more than one retailer was obviously paying their staff a salary they could survive on - namely, 36%. However, it immediately struck me that 64%, which equals some 756,000 sales assistants, are currently effectively earning a wage that puts them below the poverty line (in the context of how much one needs to live in London). This made me feel sick to my stomach. Furthermore, I suddenly realized, I am technically one of them. Since accepting the job I mentioned in the opening of this investigation, I have been promoted to supervisor. I still only receive £9.00 per hour, which is better but still £1.55 shy of the London Living Wage. However, being part-time, I supplement my retail job with design work and consulting, both of which are substantially better paid. This is the case of a lot of sales assistants I know - even those working full time have other jobs on the go in order to make ends meet.
I don’t quite know what to do with this new knowledge, other than spread the word, as I really feel it needs to be something we consider when buying clothes. It is also significant that the vast majority of these sales assistants are women. As a woman who has immediate experience of the situation, please support me in spreading the word so we can make a change to an industry that is finally being called out on for all its, quite frankly, inhumane working conditions.
As a final note to those of you who are experiencing the reality of what being a sales assistant in the London fashion world entails, I will leave you with a statement from the Living Wage Foundation, whose campaign is business facing, and whose aim is to make paying a living wage attractive to employers.
“Paying the Living Wage isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. Research has shown that 93% of Living Wage businesses have benefited since accreditation, with an increase in the retention and motivation of staff, issues that are key to tackle some of the issues currently faced by the retail sector.”
Jess also said she would support me (and anyone else who seeks support) in approaching the brand I work for if I wanted to start a campaign for better pay (you might hazard a guess at who they are if you know me personally, however, for their privacy’s sake, if not for that of my job security itself, I will not call them out here and now). After all, being a luxury brand known for their high standards of sustainability and ethics, I suddenly thought that most of our customers, who pay a substantial amount for the high quality and impeccable design of our products, would be mortified to find out that the very people they interact with, who by and large champion the brand, are not earning enough to live on.
Jessica Smulders Cohen is a designer, weaver, writer and sustainability advocate. She is most well known for her work with The Kente Weavers of Ghana, and for founding A Fibreshed for London. Read more by Jessica here