“‘LIVING’, IN THIS CASE, IS ABOUT MORE THAN JUST SURVIVING. IT’S ABOUT HAVING ENOUGH TO ENJOY A DECENT LIFE”
Words: Mark Riddaway / Images: Sim Canetty-Clarke, Issy Croker, RED Agency
All roads lead to London, or so the saying goes. But in recent years, with the cost of living spiralling and wages stagnating, the direction of travel along those highways appears to have reversed.
“This city is becoming a black hole,” says Jon Thrupp of Mons Cheesemongers. “People are thinking: ‘I couldn’t possibly dream of buying a house here. I couldn’t set up my family here. I could do that in Bristol or Brighton. I could go to Scotland. I’d rather be in Leeds than spend half of the money I earn on rent and have no chance of ever getting a mortgage.’ We’re a London-based company, so that’s such a big pressure for us.”
Jon’s business involves sourcing fine cheeses from continental Europe and the UK, maturing them in Mons’s cellars, then selling them through shops, market stalls and a wholesale business. It’s skilled work – the selection, the ageing, the cutting, the serving – so the business is reliant upon having talented people willing to do it. The good news for him is that plenty of potential employees would love to spend their days tending to the world’s best cheeses and sharing their knowledge and passion with customers. The bad news is that, in a city as expensive as this one, love alone is not enough. “You can’t talk to your landlord and say: ‘Can I pay some of my rent with my passion?” says Jon.
That’s why Mons Cheesemongers (like Borough Market itself, which signed up in 2016) decided to become an accredited Living Wage Employer. What this means is that Jon has committed to paying every member of his team more than the hourly wage set each year by the Living Wage Foundation.
As the name suggests, this charitable organisation’s mission is to secure for workers a level of pay that meets their essential needs and rises in line with the cost of those essentials. Living, in this case, is about more than just surviving. “It’s about making sure people have enough to enjoy a decent life,” says Elise Craig, who runs the Living Wage Foundation’s south London programmes. “That means covering all the basics but also engaging in a cultural life and social activities.”
The rates are updated each year to cover the cost of a ‘basket’ of goods and services that, based on a regular series of public surveys run by Loughborough University, are considered necessary for a person to live with dignity. As well as having a roof over your head and food in the fridge, that might include an annual holiday, the occasional trip to the cinema, a birthday celebration. Nothing truly decadent, but enough for a happy, fulfilling life.
The Living Wage Foundation’s current rates are £13.15 per hour in London and £12 across the rest of the UK. By comparison, the current National Living Wage (the misleadingly named wage that employers are required by law to pay to workers over the age of 23, the calculation of which is entirely unrelated to the actual cost of living) is currently only £10.42, regardless of where you live.
There are clear moral and reputational reasons for wanting to pay your staff properly. But Jon is very clear that, if you’re a business owner, seeking Living Wage Employer accreditation is not something you should do just because you want, in his words, to “seem like an honourable person when you’re in the pub, chatting about your business over a craft beer”. It’s something you should do because you want your business to thrive – and because you want London to be a viable base for cheese maturing caves as well as hedge funds.
According to Elise, the data collected by the Living Wage Foundation is unequivocal about the benefits accrued by employers: “People stay in their roles longer, and those increased retention rates mean lower costs on recruitment and training. We see better relationships between staff and management. It’s good for organisational morale, and it’s also a cost-saving exercise in the long term.”
For Jon, the primary benefit has been his ability to draw from the shrinking pool of talented people who want to start a career in the artisan food world and haven’t already fled London for Scotland or Leeds. “The accreditation is a really valuable tool for potential employees to understand,” he explains. “They’re like: ‘I know what its concept is and what it’s there for, and if I can see it on the job description, it makes sense to me.’ The Living Wage as a brand speaks more clearly and more immediately than an interview where we describe the contract, the work, how people progress. It gives that sense of certitude.” As well as being paid properly today, employees want to know that they’ll continue to be paid properly tomorrow, allowing them to make plans and put down roots. That certainty is what the accreditation provides.
For any big company, not paying the London Living Wage is pretty much indefensible. For small businesses like Borough’s traders, there are some understandable reservations. As Jon says, most market traders “are product based and have 50 per cent – if not more – of their turnover spent on actually procuring and transporting the goods.” Right now, with those core costs raging out of control, committing to annual pay rises determined by a third party involves a significant leap of faith. As Elise explains, “because of inflation, there’s been a big uplift in the rate over the past couple of years”. Jon, though, has no regrets.
His biggest concern had been the knowledge that investment in staff isn’t always repaid in kind. Training and mentoring inexperienced people involves a significant cost, particularly in an industry as heavily regulated as food. “The responsibilities from day one are quite mega, so the doubling up of staff is unavoidable,” says Jon. “Eventually, maybe after three months, you get to a position where you’re working responsibly through your day, without needing supervision and intervention from others.” The worry is that new staff will come in, cost a small fortune in pay and support, then decide on a whim that the job’s not for them.
To ease this burden, the Living Wage accreditation allows for a lower rate to be paid to trainees for the first eight weeks. “Eight weeks into the training, we move them to the full London Living Wage and it’s fine, there are no issues. By that stage, the commitment is there. If there are going to be problems, they tend to rear their head in the earlier weeks.” The reality, says Jon, is that having that guarantee of a pay uplift goes a long way towards securing genuine buy-in from trainees.
As is true of all small businesses, rising costs have forced Mons to look for efficiencies and innovations – securing euros in advance, for example, to avoid being stung by fluctuating exchange rates. It’s just that those ‘efficiencies’ don’t include underpaying people. The halo effect of this is seen by the staff, by customers who know that the money they hand over is being equitably distributed, and by the business itself, which continues to thrive. “We have to think about the future,” says Jon. “We’re either working towards something that steadily improves or we’re allowing it to steadily decline. If we want to survive, the question for us is: can we actually entice a young, passionate generation to work with us?”
Anyone who’s been served by the young, passionate generation at Jon’s Borough Market stand will know that – thanks in part to the financial security his business has promised – the answer right now is yes.