Staff get a voice
A petition on a new external online platform led to the departure of Ted Baker's boss
Three years ago, Nat Whalley was shocked when not one, but two friends were fired from their jobs after announcing their pregnancies.
‘It happened to my mum 35 years ago, but I couldn’t believe this could still be happening in this day and age,’ she says. Whalley decided to start a crowd-funder to raise legal fees for one of those friends to challenge the dismissal. ‘Just the threat of that got her job back and six months’ maternity pay,’ she says.
Realising the power of grouping together with others gave her the idea to launch Organise, an online platform through which workers can band together to challenge their employers about unfair conditions and demand change. Launched in March 2017, it is the first of its kind in the UK, although such platforms exist overseas.
Employees can use the Organise platform to create a petition, draft an open letter to management or create a workplace survey to crowdsource ideas to fix particular issues. And only recently one of its petitions claimed Organise’s first scalp, when Ray Kelvin, the founder and boss of fashion house Ted Baker, resigned after being accused of alleged harassment.
On the Organise petition which staff posted, Kelvin, 62, who is worth £522 million according to the Sunday Times Rich List was accused of ‘sexual innuendo’ and ‘stroking people’s necks’.
The petition stated: ‘He took off his shirt on one occasion and talked about his sex life. So many people have left the business due to harassment, whether that be verbal, physical or sexual.’
Workers at Ted Baker claimed the company was reluctant to do anything about the unwanted touching and hugging.
‘It is part of a culture that leaves harassment unchallenged.’ The petition writer added: ‘I’ve seen the CEO ask young female members of staff to sit on his knee, cuddle him or let him massage their ears. I went to human resources with a complaint and was told That’s just what Ray’s like.’
The company said the complaints raised in the petition were ‘at odds with the values of our business and those of our CEO’ and promised an independent investigation. Consequently, an internal committee commissioned law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to investigate the allegations and complete a review of the company’s internal procedures.
Initially, Ted Baker appeared to back Kelvin, saying: ‘Ted Baker has always placed great importance on the company’s culture and owes everything to the commitment of our people. It is critically important to us that every member of our staff feels valued and respected at work.
‘Ray greets many people he meets with a hug, be it a shareholder, investor, supplier, partner, customer or colleague. Hugs have become part of Ted Baker’s culture, but are absolutely not insisted upon.’
It is part of a culture that leaves harassment unchallenged
But in the end, Kelvin, who owns nearly 35 per cent of the fashion chain, stepped down. He did not receive any salary or benefits from Ted Baker following his resignation, and his 2016, 2017 and 2018 bonus share awards lapsed.
And, following the conclusion of Herbert Smith Freehills’ investigation, Ted Baker said it would overhaul its human resources policies to ‘cultivate a better environment for all employees where they always feel respected and valued’.
It has also introduced an independent and confidential whistleblowing hotline, while staff will undergo training on acceptable workplace conduct.
Since the Ted Baker allegations emerged last December, Unidays, a student discount website, has also been forced to launch an investigation into sexual harassment of its staff following a petition. And in April, Waterstones staff delivered a petition with more than 9,300 signatures to the company’s headquarters calling for staff to be paid the living wage.
These are major steps when it comes to improving workers’ rights, and they have happened in an amazingly short amount of time.
Whalley, who has a background in digital campaigning and was previously with 38 degrees, the British online campaigning organisation, said it was imperative that Organise should enable people to complain anonymously and to test the water with other staff by running surveys on specific issues.
While Organise is free to use, the platform does ask for donations.
Its first major success was ITV.
After three staff complained about maternity pay, Organise ran a survey of staff generally in May 2017, and 150 people made complaints. The initial three complainants were named on the resulting petition while the others remained anonymous and the issue was resolved within six weeks, after which ITV improved maternity benefits from 12 to 18 weeks’ full pay – in line with the BBC.
‘There were no repercussions, it was a positive experience,’ says Whalley. ‘Some staff even got promotions afterwards.’
Whalley says the platform includes safeguards to prevent malicious attacks against employers. It requires users to give their names, employers and work emails and bans ‘hate speech’. Employees are only allowed to launch petitions naming the company, its boss or another very senior person.
While users can remain anonymous on petitions, Organise knows their identities and checks that they do work for the organisation they say they work for.
Aside from the specific petitions it promotes, Organise also carries out weekly general surveys of ten per cent of its ‘community’, comprising anyone who has ever reported an issue or signed a petition – currently 60,000 people in the UK. Then it looks for patterns in the responses.
This was how the Ted Baker issue came about. ‘We never intended to oust the boss of Ted Baker,’ says Whalley. ‘The intention was just to get the harassment taken seriously.’
News last autumn that Philip Green was facing harassment claims from his own workers gave Whalley the idea to do a general survey of members of Organise on this issue. The survey threw up two very similar complaints from workers at Ted Baker. ‘Then we carried out a Ted Baker-specific survey and got 25 reports of harassment. The petition we launched as a result was live for a month and 300 staff members signed it, then customers joined and raised the number to 2,700. Then the press picked it up.’
He took off his shirt on one occasion and talked about his sex life
The story was reported in all major press outlets and this finally spurred the company on to announce its investigation and ultimately appoint long-serving director Lindsay Page as its new chief executive.
In March, Waterstones staff grouped together to demand a pay rise in line with the living wage of £9 an hour, or £10.55 an hour for those in greater London.
The petition states: ‘Paying all your Booksellers a starting Living Wage of £9, or £10.55 for the Greater London area, will have a positive impact on the lives of Booksellers, their performance in the role, and the success of the bookselling industry.
‘Working for a rate of pay that is below the Living Wage results in Booksellers who are stressed, preoccupied and who have little spare time and energy to devote to buying books, reading them, and keeping up with news and trends in the industry – all of which activities are undertaken outside contracted hours, and which many staff consider to be (and are encouraged to view as) integral to their role.’
Within weeks of the petition’s launch, thousands of staff and customers had signed, including 2,000 authors who pitched up in the space of one week alone. In late March, 1,340 authors including Kerry Hudson, David Nicholls, Sally Rooney, Michael Rosen and Val McDermid wrote an open letter to Waterstones’ managing director, James Daunt, in support of the campaign.
They wrote: ‘As authors, we recognise the vital role booksellers play in our literary culture and industry. Their skill, expertise and passion are a true asset, and this deserves to be acknowledged both through public recognition and financial remuneration.
‘A business that cannot offer a living wage to staff without redundancies or reducing hours [does not have] a viable business model.’
Daunt initially responded by saying the bookseller is simply not profitable enough to pay £9 an hour, but soon found himself publicly debating the subject with authors on Radio 4. As a result, Waterstones is now facing heavy pressure to capitulate to workers’ demands. authors and the general public.
‘This is an incredibly powerful platform for workers to make themselves heard,’ says Whalley. Most recently, she and her team have launched a new general campaign for paid leave for domestic violence victims, as is available in New Zealand.
A cross-party group of MPs has given its backing to this campaign and an amendment to Theresa May’s Domestic Abuse bill has been tabled for Parliamentary time. (Mobile phone operator Vodafone recently launched a global policy offering paid leave to employees who suffered domestic abuse.)
Organise is also developing a smartphone app which will allow employees to use an encrypted diary to build a log of incidents of harassment or bullying which can be used as evidence.
In the meantime, others have started to follow suit. Just over a year ago, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) launched Megaphone UK, its own online campaign platform for workers – a version of the Australian model.
While workers in the UK are facing the prospect of a weaker framework for rights and conditions following the UK’s exit from the European Union, it may be that they have found a new way to put pressure on employers to treat them right.