Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Hypocrisy of John Lewis

I have to confess to having had a soft spot for John Lewis/Waitrose. I know that an Orcado account has become almost a compulsory requirement for the card carrying liberal chattering classes of North London, but even so I can't help but feel that they are ethically preferable to the bare-faced cuntishness of a company like Tesco. And from a strictly consumers' point of view it seems that John Lewis' benevolent paternalism towards their own staff pays off in having a helpful workforce who generally seem to give a shit about what they do.

The story of how they become a profit-sharing partnership is - on human terms at least - not easy to ignore. The heir to the family business comes back from World War One having  experienced some sort of egalitarian epiphany as an officer serving alongside the working classes in the trenches .  So he resolves to share the profits and create a benevolent paternalistic business with generous staff benefits. It's certainly wasn't workers control but only the most doctrinaire  would not see this as anything other than massively preferable to the McJobs culture that dominates most retailers.

But the story that contract-cleaners at John Lewis are now on strike to secure a living wage blows this whole ethical mythology to pieces. It may not be a question of conscious hypocrisy on the part of the management (although of course it may be) but it is an insight into the dark vacuum at the heart of big business.  Quite simply they want to pay cheap prices -  for everything - and don't ask of their suppliers how these cheap prices are possible. Through some moral contortionism, the left hand of corporate ethics chooses not to know what the right hand of corporate procurement does. 

The same  contortionism means that these big business can have policy statements galore about minimum wages or  how they won't use child labour or how they recognise the right to join trade unions - but just so long as their sub-contractors sign up to these they won't ask them too many questions. In fact the John Lewis story is just a little too close to home: Over about five years I saw the small business I worked for rung dry by retailers who looked for savings year-on-year without any thought as to how these savings were possible. Then the same retailer cried crocodile tears when we were finally unable to give away any more because we weren't prepared to off-shore our own jobs. And if I sound bitter and twisted about it - it's because I am.

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