You’re betraying your Quaker roots: fury at Clarks’ ‘fire and rehire’ plan

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Warehouse workers for Clarks have accused the 200-year-old shoemaker of betraying its philanthropic roots by threatening them with the sack if they don’t accept significant pay cuts.

More than 100 staff in Clarks’ main distribution centre in Street, Somerset, where the brand was founded by two Quaker brothers in the 19th century, claim the firm is seeking to cut their wages by almost 15% from the average of £11.16 an hour to £9.50 an hour by using controversial fire and rehire tactics.

The workers, who have been on strike for two weeks, have been told they must sign new contracts or risk losing their jobs without redundancy pay. They also face cuts to sick pay and reduced redundancy packages as well as the scrapping of paid breaks.

Clarks – which was taken over by a Hong Kong-based private equity firm, LionRock Capital, in March – closed its last UK shoemaking plant in 2006. But the company, in which the Clarks family now hold a minority stake, headquarters and main distribution centre are still in Street.

Trevor Stephens, who has worked at the warehouse for 17 years, said the firm’s actions were especially shocking given its proud history in the town. “The Clark brothers were ahead of their time in looking after their staff. They built houses, schools and even a swimming pool here in Street,” he said. “But [Clarks] are bullying us into accepting lower wages. It is destroying lives. It destroying families.”

On strike: Trevor Stephens (left) and Francis Foley.
On strike: Trevor Stephens (left) and Francis Foley. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Many staff fear they will not be able to keep up with their rent or mortgage payments if their pay is cut. Stephens, 45, said he wouldn’t be able to afford his flat if the new contracts are imposed. “I need a two-bedroom place for my kids to come to visit. They won’t be able to stay over if I haven’t got the space,” he said. “There is a real possibility I might be losing my job, my house, and my kids.”

The threat has overwhelmed some staff. Francis Foley collapsed the week after they were told about the new contracts. “I hadn’t had a day’s sick leave in 34 years until I collapsed and cracked my head open at work. I’ve been signed off for five weeks with work-related stress,” he said. “It all got too much with me and I’m still struggling now.”

Many in the town appear to be turning against Clarks.

The workers have been inundated with messages of solidarity, with postal staff refusing to cross their picket line and food donations arriving daily. “Clarks has betrayed the town. They have betrayed people who have worked for them for years,” said Foley, 54, whose father and brother both worked for the firm. “People are disgusted with what they are doing to us. People are dropping sweets and drinks off. Cars are honking their support all the time.”

Some newer warehouse workers are being paid less than long-standing staff, he said: “They should bring their pay up to ours.”

Last week delegations of council workers, firefighters and train drivers joined the picket lines. Dave Chapple, secretary of Mendip Trades Council, said: “Is this really the future for work in this country: no more collective bargaining negotiations, just industrial dictatorship?”

In a video, local Conservative MP James Heappey said strike action was “not the way forward”. Heappey said he had spoken to Stephens at his weekly surgery in July and had offered to take up individual cases with Clarks.

The strike comes as concern grows about employers’ use of fire and rehire. At least 28 firms, including British Gas and British Airways, have been accused since the start of the pandemic of threatening to sack workers who do not accept new contractsA poll for the TUC this year found one in ten 10 workers – three million people – had experienced the tactic.

Boris Johnson has called the practice “unacceptable”, but ministers have also insisted that firms in financial difficulty must have the flexibility to offer new terms and conditions.

A private member’s bill drawn-up by Labour MP Barry Gardiner, which will force employers to negotiate fire and rehire style restructures at a much earlier stage and give unions the right to take immediate strike action if managers do not engage in talks, has gathered the support of more than 200 MPs from across the House of Commons.

Clarks said the pandemic had led to turnover dropping by 44% and record losses of £180m last year. “Clarks did not undertake this lightly, but the proposals are part of a company-wide plan to secure future viability, with a view to protecting over 4,000 jobs in the UK,” it said. It added that terminating contracts on current terms and offer re-engagement on new terms would be “the very last resort”. It said the changes would mean more than half of the workers at the distribution centre would get a pay rise to £9.50 an hour. It said affected workers would be protected from any pay reduction until 2023 by top-up payments.

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