Scottish Labour leader admits family firm doesn’t pay ‘real living wage’

Anas Sarwar says staff at United Wholesale Scotland had got 'significant increases' in their pay
Anas Sarwar says staff at United Wholesale Scotland had got 'significant increases' in their pay - Wattie Cheung

The Scottish Labour leader has been forced to admit not all staff at his family’s multi-million-pound company are paid the “real living wage” despite Sir Keir Starmer’s pledge to introduce the minimum benchmark.

Anas Sarwar said staff at United Wholesale Scotland (UWS) had experienced “significant increases” in their pay packets, but not all employees received the current “real living wage”.

He said the cash-and-carry business, which was started by his father, Mohammad Sarwar, a former Labour MP, would have to comply with Sir Keir’s proposals.

But the Tories and SNP accused him of “hypocrisy”, pointing to his admission that UWS had not introduced the wage increase voluntarily.

Labour wants to introduce a real living wage as part of its “new deal for workers”. This would take into account the cost of living and would be higher than the current national minimum wage.

The hourly rate advocated by the Living Wage Foundation is £12 across the UK and £13.15 in London – 56p more than the current national minimum wage. Labour is yet to set out what amount it would set.

Not involved in running firm

Mr Sarwar is not personally involved in the day-to-day running of his family’s business and relinquished all shares ahead of a Scottish Labour leadership contest in 2017, which he lost to Richard Leonard, a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn.

But, after moving his shares into a trust for his three children that year, he said that he had received assurances from the company that it “wants to transition to a real living wage for all employees”.

He came under further pressure on the issue last year when it emerged the company was advertising for a forklift operator to work a minimum of 45 hours per week.

The position paid £10.58 per hour, below the Scottish Living Wage, which was estimated to be £10.90 at the time and just 16p per hour above the minimum wage.

Mr Sarwar’s wife and the trust for his children continue to benefit from the profits of the company, which is listed as one of the biggest in Scotland. It posted a pre-tax profit of £4.9 million in 2021 and a turnover of £274.6 million.

Asked if UWS was now paying its staff the real living wage, Mr Sarwar told BBC Scotland’s Sunday Show: “Well, they have a really good strong relationship with the USDAW trade union.”

He added: “They will have to do what everyone will have to do, which is comply with the new deal for working people that will deliver a genuine living wage, and they have a trade union recognition agreement with USDAW and a very strong relationship with USDAW.

“It’s not my business. I have no shares in that business. It’s a business that, yes, my family has an involvement in, but I have no direct involvement with that business.”

‘It will not cost jobs’

Pressed if he did not know whether all staff were paid the living wage, or if he knew they were not, Mr Sarwar admitted: “Well, I don’t believe that every single staff member is on the real living wage.”

He denied Labour’s “new deal for working people”, which also includes a ban on zero-hours contracts, would result in job losses as a result of businesses struggling to meet increases in pay.

“It will not cost jobs. When we look at the election in 1997, the scaremongering then was that we were going to cause hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country,” Mr Sarwar added.

But Craig Hoy, the Scottish Tory chairman, said: “This was a car-crash interview for Anas Sarwar as he was forced to admit that his family business doesn’t comply with his own party’s flagship policy.

“The Scottish Labour leader was left in the humiliating position of saying his family firm would be forced by law to pay the real living wage, if his party won the election, because it refuses to do so voluntarily.

“It leaves Anas Sarwar open to the charge of hypocrisy – especially as the controversy over what staff are paid surfaced more than six months ago and it’s still not been resolved.”

Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s Westminster leader, said: “Anas Sarwar isn’t even the change the workers in his family’s firm need – never mind Scotland. This Labour Party hypocrisy scandal shows why voting SNP is vital to protect workers’ rights and put Scotland first.”