Norman Pickavance

Norman Pickavance has previously advised Ed Miliband on employment matters

Retail’s ‘low-waged, low-skilled’ culture is set to come under scrutiny from a new task force headed up by a former Morrisons HR director, which is being launched today by left-wing thinktank The Fabian Society.

The task force will publish a plan in late 2016 for how productivity and pay in UK retail can be boosted, for which it will seek input from retailers, employers and experts over the coming months.

It is headed up by Norman Pickavance, a former Morrisons group HR and communications director, who advised Ed Miliband on employment matters in the run-up to the last general election.

As the biggest private-sector employer, retail has a central role to play in boosting the UK’s productivity, Pickavance will say at a launch event in Westminster later today.

All too often, people in retail work “shorter and shorter hours so they can be flexed in and out of staffing rotas, to more perfectly reflect the footfall flow charts that every retailer tracks to ensure their labour costs are in line with sales volumes,” Pickavance will say.

“These jobs are by their very nature often de-skilled – because how do you up-skill and cross-skill a person who may only be working four hours a week? The de-skilling of the workforce is part of a more general push toward casualization, whether that be through zero-hour contracts or indeed the outsourcing of various store activities…. like cleaning or indeed, in some cases, things like the running of the customer café. It’s this thinking that seems to be creating ever-diminishing returns.”

Successful retailers around the world understand their businesses can only thrive if they look after staff and rewarded them fairly, Pickavance will say, citing Wegmans and Publix in the US as examples while also highlighting Apple and its high-end stores as a role model for UK retailers.

They show retailing can be “a pleasure and not just a chore”, he will say, adding major employers have a responsibility towards staff that goes far beyond the wage packet.

“The possibility to have a decent life is reliant on having a good job… it should be possible for anyone to work hard to achieve that. A good job is about your dignity, your self-worth, your place in the community. Every single human being is entitled to be treated with dignity, be given an opportunity. For many that bargain is being broken. There is a huge gap between profits and wages.”

The Fabian Society report will be looking to identify examples of innovative business practice in retail “that works for the employer and employee alike”.

“We will also be clear about what government needs to do to support responsible businesses who want to boost pay and productivity,” Pickavance says.