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The cost-of-living crisis in the U.K. is so bad that a major retailer is offering its workers free food to cope with the winter

September 1, 2022, 3:12 PM UTC

Britain’s rapidly escalating cost-of-living crisis has seen blame hurled at the U.K. government, energy companies, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as millions in the country head into winter facing a choice between heating their homes and eating.

People in the U.K. have experienced an unprecedented squeeze on their spending power over the past year—and the situation is expected to worsen in the coming months.

John Lewis—the company that runs its namesake department stores as well as the upmarket Waitrose grocery stores—said on Wednesday that it would provide free meals for its staff while they were at work.

The firm, which has more than 80,000 employees, will extend the offer to all permanent and temporary workers from Oct. 3 to Jan. 6.

A spokesperson for the company said the free food offer would be available to workers during their breaks.

Those working in large department stores with a kitchen will be allowed to order from a menu including hot meals for breakfast and lunch or dinner. Long-distance truck drivers will be able to preorder a packed lunch.

“Naturally, we are catering for thousands of employees with a variety of different needs and facilities available to them, so menus will vary greatly from location to location,” the spokesperson told Fortune on Thursday. “We try to cater for as many people as possible.”

Chefs develop new recipes in Waitrose Partners Food Innovation Studio. All of John Lewis’s workers will be offered free meals during their shifts over the winter.
Courtesy of John Lewis & Partners

John Lewis made the announcement as it said it would be hiring more than 10,000 temporary workers to cover the Christmas period.

“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 U.K.’s best-loved brands,” Andrew Murphy, chief operations officer at the John Lewis Partnership, said in a statement on Wednesday.

John Lewis, which has been given a four-star review score by thousands of current and former employees on Glassdoor, is an employee-owned business and pays all of its employees—referred to as “Partners”—an annual bonus based on the company’s performance.

This year, the bonus was 3% of each employee’s annual salary—equivalent to 1.5 weeks’ pay.

170% year-on-year rising bills

John Lewis said Wednesday that it was offering employees free food to help with the cost of living, which has risen steeply in the U.K. this year.

Last week, Britain’s energy regulator announced it was increasing its cap on consumer energy bills by 80% from October. In April, British energy costs more than doubled.

According to charity National Energy Action, energy bills in the U.K. would have risen by 170% year on year by October, with 8.9 million people projected to be pushed into fuel poverty.

In a recent forecast, consultancy Cornwall Insight said it expected annual household energy costs to reach £4,426 ($5,118) by April. At the beginning of 2022, the average U.K. household was paying less than £1,500 a year for energy.

Energy costs have been pushed up across Europe as the continent looks to reduce its reliance on Russian gas after the invasion of Ukraine, but wholesale natural gas prices had already spiked to record highs in the region due to low inventories and increasing demand as countries emerged from COVID lockdowns.

Britain’s reliance on gas as an energy source has seen it hit particularly hard by Europe’s rising prices.

The U.K. government has taken some steps to ease the energy crisis, including a £400 energy grant for every household as well as approving a one-off windfall tax of £5 billion on energy firms.

Earlier this month, Goldman Sachs warned that U.K. inflation could hit 22% in January if energy prices continue to spiral out of control.

Alongside soaring energy costs, food prices increased in August at the fastest rate since the 2008 financial crisis, according to the British Retail Consortium.

Pensioners protest over rising fuel prices in London on Feb. 7, 2022.
Guy Smallman—Getty Images

Following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation last month, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak—both senior lawmakers from Johnson’s Conservative Party who served in Johnson’s cabinet—are battling it out to take over from him.

Johnson, who has been widely criticized for lack of action on the cost-of-living crisis, has ruled out taking any further steps to alleviate the situation, saying that his successor and their new government will do more to tackle the emergency.

His replacement is set to be announced on Sept. 5.

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