Central Co-op chief calls for a fair deal for workers and for the north
A leader of the retail sector across Europe prioritised fairness for front line workers as she addressed an audience at Humber Business Week in Hull.
Debbie Robinson, the Central Co-op CEO and European Vice President of Euro Co-ops, also rejected talk of “levelling up” and said what the north needs is to get its fair share back.
She said: “When I hear that the Bank of England are worried that an increase in the minimum wage is going to impact inflation it’s just ridiculous so the pay thing is crucial. It’s got to be significantly higher than where it is today.”
Debbie was speaking at the latest in the series of Elevenses interviews, launched by Paul Sewell at the 2021 edition of Humber Business Week. As chair of Sewell Group, Paul works across sectors including construction, property, investments, filling stations and convenience stores. The pair met earlier this year during a retail industry visit to Japan and South Korea.
“I invited Debbie because I found her to be a fabulous role model with a wonderful story to tell. She is an icon of social mobility and women in top jobs. Her organisation is the role model for modern ethical business.”
During the interview, which is available to watch in full on the Humber Business Week website, Burnley-born Debbie demonstrated how her career decisions have been influenced by her childhood and her role as a mother and grandmother.
She also underlined the values of fairness which inspired the Co-op even before its formal launch in 1863 and which are still at the heart of an organisation employing over 7,500 people across 21 counties.
She said: “I think people are a bit fed up at the moment. When you’ve got your nurses and your doctors and your rail strikes going on it’s a strong indication that people have had enough.
“Something I really believe in is pay and entry-level workers, and we just need to pay people a bit more money to help them through. Central Co-op is trying to lead the way on finding ways that we can improve the terms and conditions for all of our colleagues.
“You should be able to earn the money to buy your own food. I don’t think anybody down the food chain should be supplementing it for anybody else. If somebody isn’t being paid enough to put food on your table how are they going to be able to afford food? Surely people deserve to earn enough money to be able to buy their own food, heat their own homes and have a decent life? Make work pay!”
Debbie added that she sees young people as particularly hard hit by the cost of living crisis.
“The idea behind the Co-op was that people were working really, really hard and they couldn’t get by. Does it sound familiar? Here we are in 2023. Working was not enough to pay for your food and your housing.
“My heart bleeds for young people. It might have been difficult in terms of unemployment in the 70s and the 80s, and it really was, but the challenges now are absolutely immense.”
Debbie also demanded fair treatment for workers from their customers, revealing that her biggest fear is for the welfare of her team.
She said: “Now times are really hard financially and the levels of abuse that people are facing in that environment are really shocking. I think of what people have to face every single day. Everybody has a right to go to work and return home safely.”
She revealed that she still lives in Manchester and feels a sense of relief when she returns from the travels which are a big part of her job.
“When I see the motorway sign for the north I think ‘thank heavens!’ It seems to get greener and brighter! I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously. There’s a lot more spirit and energy here but I do think the infrastructure needs to be addressed.
“Social mobility is really important. The ability to move, to see different places, access different things whether that’s work, whether it’s education, are really important. Rather than levelling up I call it our fair share. That’s actually what I’d like, for the north to have its fair share back.”
The interview also explored the similarities between Burnley and Hull.
“They are places of honest, decent people. Everything for a while was really done for them, there were enough jobs for everybody and then both of them were really devastated in the late 70s and early 80s.
“I saw a lot of people in Burnley who had worked in manufacturing and in the mines and suddenly those things didn’t exist anymore. It left people with big questions about what they were going to do with the rest of their lives but it still remains an honest, decent place but the lack of infrastructure holds it back. There’s real spirit and like Hull I do feel it’s another place that’s on the up.”
She reflected on her “idyllic upbringing” as an adopted child and on the independence and determination which followed difficulties at school.
“I used to run errands and maybe that’s partly where the love of retail came from. I knew to check the date on the butter, always go to the back of the fridge, never get the one from the front.
“Nobody had a lot in those days but you knew some people had a bit more than you did. I’m not a very materialistic person but I did see how having the right things in the right location was really important and if you didn’t you could feel held back whether you were or not.
“I didn’t find school easy academically but I loved sport. I was bullied. I was ginger, freckles, but I was able to run fast and that was handy when you were skinny and ginger from Burnley.”
Debbie spoke at length about the balancing act around bringing up children while pursuing her career and other interests – she’s completed the last 20 London Marathons.
“We had the best weekends and we were able to go on brilliant summer holidays because of what I do. It never sat easily because of the choices you make but they have been all over the world because of what I do.”
Her commitment to family privacy was strengthened when she was made redundant from the Co-op first time round and her daughter learned of the dismissal from friends who had read it in the paper.
She said: “Someone told my daughter her mum had been sacked. I’d wanted to tell her that myself. You realise no matter how private you are, and I’m an incredibly private person, certain things will always get out so the story was out and there was no point trying to explain it was anything else.”
Debbie returned to retail in a manging director role with Spar and then ran her own business before joining Central Co-op when she was head-hunted.
She tells the audience how her role at the top of Central Co-op has involved staying true to the organisation’s founding principles and looking after the workforce through the current economic challenges and, before that, Covid.
“Our workers put their uniforms on and went to work and they didn’t know if the pandemic was going to kill them. They didn’t know if they would pass it on to their families. But they turned up. Our funeral business became a war zone because the government couldn’t decide whether or not you could bury people who had had Covid.
To watch the full interview and hear Debbie Robinson’s views on the challenges facing working parents, her advice for people in business and her reaction on finding out that her board colleagues had placed her at the top of the Co-op’s risk register visit the Humber Business Week website at https://www.humberbusinessweek.co.uk/