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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Bad news on the High Street

by New Worker correspondent

TUESDAY saw the announcement by Marks & Spencer (M&S) that they were making another 7,000 staff redundant.

Dave Gill, a national officer for shop-workers union USDAW, which has many members employed by the chain but no recognition at the notoriously non-union company, said: “This job loss announcement is yet another devastating blow for M&S staff and yet another bombshell for our high streets. The Government has a clear choice; do they want to see the high street go to the wall, or do they want to help save it?”

He demanded a “tripartite approach of the Government, unions and employers working together to develop a much-needed retail recovery plan. We have long called for an industrial strategy for retail to help a sector that was already struggling before the Coronavirus emergency. Now the situation is much worse,” before insisting that “M&S management abandon their long-held resistance to allowing USDAW to represent the staff. It is simply unjust that the company has made the decision not to engage with a trade union”. These job cuts came on top of the 950 cuts announced in July where it sought to make changes to its management structures. It claims that most of the redundancies will be voluntary or from early retirements. That seems unlikely however, because cuts of that magnitude will affect almost 10 per cent of its 80,000 employees.

According chief executive Steve Rowe: “In May we outlined our plans to learn from the crisis, accelerate our transformation and deliver a stronger, more agile business in a world in which some customer habits were changed forever.” That could well be read as saying that the reward for working harder, or at least better, is to get a P45. In mitigation, bosses pleaded that M&S planned to create new jobs in online fulfilment, marking a shift in the business, but we can be sure these will not make up for the losses. Had M&S had an online food ordering service earlier they would not have lost so many customers and this correspondent would not be missing his Stilton in recent months.

In response, USDAW made the less-than-revolutionary demand for a fundamental reform of business rates, and an immediate and comprehensive review of rental values and lease arrangements. It also demanded that tax law be reformed to ensure that companies pay their fair share of tax through tackling tax avoidance and the use of offshore havens.

The union also wants funding for local authorities to invest in their local economy, transport networks and high streets.

For the workers, it demands investment in training for retail workers, including union learning and “high-quality apprenticeships”, and a new deal for retail, distribution and home-delivery workers based around a real living wage and guaranteed hours.

Jobs are also under threat at Debenhams, which has been in trouble since long before the COVID-19 crisis. Some 2,500 shop and warehouse jobs were cut last week. Once again USDAW accused the company, and this time its administrators, of ignoring the union and the interests of its workers, saying: “Debenhams has been in turmoil for many years, but this development over the weekend is deeply disturbing for staff. Throughout Debenhams’ difficulties the company and now administrators are refusing to engage with USDAW, the staff are being treated appallingly and we don’t believe the law is being complied with.”

USDAW also complained that: “Redundancies were made by conference call, with no meaningful consultation or proper notice period, as required by law. It is absolutely disgraceful that businesses can get away with this in the 21st century.” It optimistically demanded of a Tory Government that it “ends the perverse financial incentive for employers and administrators not to comply with legal obligations on collective redundancy consultation.”

At the Plymouth branch staff were made redundant with little warning and told to leave by Friday, with only three-day’s pay. Joint administrators FRP Adisory claimed they were not able to engage in the normal redundancy procedure because Debenhams is technically insolvent and unable to pay its debts, having gone into administration in April. That legalese will who are out of pocket. These cases demonstrate that it is not just the basket cases of the retail sector that are in trouble. John Lewis has said it is closing eight stores at a cost of 1,300 jobs. Boots is cutting 4,000 jobs (which amounts to seven per cent of the workforce), with 48 of its 600 Optician shops closing, and John Lewis is shutting down eight stores, putting 1,300 jobs at risk. WHSmith is threatening to cut 1,500 jobs as sales have slumped. Perhaps selling the New Worker would help to attract customers.

Unsurprisingly, some retailers are doing very well. Predatory online retailer Amazon has been a major beneficiary. Globally its sales grew 40 per cent to $88.9 billion, despite moaning that it had to spend $4 billion on PPE and bonuses for its notoriously underpaid and overworked staff. It is now valued at $1.5 trillion based on its closing price. It has hired 175,000 new employees during the pandemic and claims it will retain 125,000 of them to cope with its permanently increased demands. Last month it stopped a $2 hourly bonus for staff, which it started paying during the pandemic.

Amazon is planning to move into the grocery business, which has already given Tesco a fright and caused them to announce free deliveries for its biggest spenders [those who join their paid-for loyalty scheme, so it’s not really free!].

High Street stores and the jobs they bring are slowly being eroded. Too many shoppers are shameless about using the advice they get from high street shops to help them choose a model, which is then promptly ordered via their mobiles from a distant online retailer outside the helpful high street shop.