Free food for staff | John Lewis' cost-of-living aid is welcome, but should firms go further?

John Lewis' cost-of-living aid is welcome, but should firms go further?

Employees at the John Lewis Partnership will get free meals over the coming months as the firm tries to ease the burden of the cost-of-living crisis.

Workers in the retail giant’s stores, warehouses and head office will get free breakfast and lunch in staff canteens, while lorry drivers and other on-the-road staff will receive free packed lunches.

The initiative will run from October 3rd to January 6th 2023, the company’s Christmas trading period, and temporary seasonal staff will also be eligible – a potentially huge incentive at a time when retailers are fighting to attract and keep talent.

In fact, John Lewis Partnership also confirmed that it would be recruiting more than 10,000 temporary workers across the country to meet increased demand over the busy festive period. The jobs include roles in Waitrose and John Lewis shops as well as the company’s distribution network.

Andrew Murphy, Chief Operations Officer, said: “We pride ourselves on creating a happy workplace because it's our Partners who make the difference and it’s thanks to them that John Lewis and Waitrose are two of the UK’s best-loved brands. We are looking forward to welcoming people across the country to grow our team and ensure we deliver a great Christmas for our customers.”

‘It’s not enough’

Soaring energy prices and the ever-rising cost of living means countless households across the nation face the choice of heating or eating this winter.

As such, John Lewis staff members who are struggling with the current economic climate will have their financial concerns ever so slightly alleviated, by not having to worry about a handful of meals in the run-up to Christmas – a time when household budgets are typically stretched even further.

But Kate Bell, the head of economics at the Trade Union Congress (TUC), said one-off gestures such as (temporarily) free food don’t go far enough.

“Of course workers will take any form of help they can get this winter,” Bell said. “But the only real way to give working families security is a decent pay rise. One-off support is not enough. We need to get wages rising across the economy to end this living standards crisis.”

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However, the TUC call for wage rises is not being heeded by many firms, and this is an issue that could lead many employees to look elsewhere for new jobs.

In fact, new research reveals that 45% of workers have been waiting more than 12 months for a pay rise, as inflation hits 10.1%.

The study from Aspire – a recruitment agency – found that 32% of workers will look to change roles in the next 12 months, with nearly half of those surveyed having not received a pay rise in over a year.

More than 500 candidates from a range of industries – including marketing, sales, technology and creative industries – responded to Aspire’s survey, which explores trends in the UK jobs market and what’s driving those trends this year.

The study reveals that almost half of respondents (45.5%) have not received a pay rise in more than 12 months, while a third (33.5%) of respondents cited salary as the most important job factor.

Of those who had received increases, 46.7% have had pay rises of between 0-5%, which is below the 10.1% inflation rate and falls well short of the forecasted 18% rate of inflation in 2023.

Paul Farrer, chairman and founder of Aspire, commented on the findings, saying: “The UK continues to grapple with a skills shortage, with the record 1.3m job vacancies evidencing just how difficult employers are finding it to hire the right talent.

“But with half of candidates not having received a pay rise in the last 12 months – and with significant wage growth in the sectors Aspire specialises in – we’re seeing what many candidates see: that they stand to benefit from changing jobs right now.

“With inflation pushing up energy and fuel costs, it makes sense that people are looking for new roles that offer them a competitive salary or a pay rise that can protect them from the rising cost of living.

“Employers need to be acutely aware and sensitive towards how wider societal trends feed into the motivations of workers. Achieve this and employers won’t just be better placed to attract the right talent – they’ll be able to retain it too.”

Are pay rises the best solution to combat the cost-of-living crisis?

A growing number of British firms are stepping up financial support for their workers amid the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. Many major companies such as Asda, Tesco and Morrisons have upped pay in recent months, partly in a bid to keep hold of staff who might otherwise be lured to competitors offering higher wages.

Barclays also recently announced a £1,200 pay rise for its 35,000 UK employees. However, some firms’ attempts to help their staff with growing costs have not been successful.

Unionised workers at engine maker Rolls-Royce recently rejected an offer which would have seen staff receive a one-off £2,000 bonus. Bosses at Unite the union said the move fell "far short of the real cost of living challenges which our members are experiencing".

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It could therefore be a good idea for HR leaders at other firms – who might be thinking of offering more money as a solution to employees’ current issues – to think creatively.

And of course, there are many businesses that, no matter how much they want to, simply can’t afford to offer their staff higher pay or bonuses.

In fact, a recent study from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that 48% of UK firms had no immediate plans to offer salary raises.

What are the alternatives?

Many firms are quickly throwing money at the problem, but research published in 2022 from global life insurance provider MetLife found that 50% of employees would sacrifice more of their basic salary to get a personalised employee benefits package.

The research was conducted as part of MetLife’s Re:Me report, which looks at how the pandemic has shifted attitudes in the workplace. Among its findings was the discovery that 69% of employers said they’d work harder for an employer who provided benefits that were tailored to their individual needs.

And they’re not looking for “soft” perks, such as John Lewis’ free food offering, or gym membership (many of which, in any case, became obsolete during lockdown and the peak of the pandemic). Income protection was the 13th most desired benefit prior to the pandemic; MetLife’s research discovered that it now stands at 3rd, with a further 58% of employees stating that they’d like their benefits package to cover all their dependents, including their spouse.

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