Arcadia, the owner of Topshop, Burton, and Dorothy Perkins, has gone into administration, putting 13,000 jobs at risk. In retail, 85% of Arcadia employees are women, while at head office 71% are women.
It is also a young workforce. 75% of the retail workforce is under 35 while at head office 63% of the workforce is under 35.
The company said the pandemic had had “a material impact on trading across our businesses”, and in fact it was already in difficulties due to a chunk of its traffic moving to competitors more adroit about going online.
Hospitality and retail are the foremost sectors for pandemic and lockdown job losses, and they employ many women and are also vulnerable to lockdown measures. Globally, women’s job losses due to Covid-19 are 1.8 times greater than men’s.
Administrators for Arcadia have said no redundancies would be announced immediately, so workers may have a small window in which to mobilise to fight job cuts.
They are not starting from a good place. Union membership is higher among women workers (26.2%) than male workers (20.7%), and it is increasing, with 170,000 joining a union last year, but it is concentrated in public services. Retail has low union membership, and that concentrated in supermarkets, which are the area of retail not cutting jobs. The largest union in retail, USDAW, has a history of partnership trade unionism and ineffectiveness. Any fightback will require a spark of resistance outside the logic of routine union organising so far in the sector.
The anti-union laws make strike action in time to save jobs difficult, but workers can consider unofficial action if necessary. In the run-up to Christmas, high street shops offer the potential for high-profile workplace occupations, using stock which bosses will want to move as a bargaining chip. Debenhams workers in Ireland have occupied against job cuts this year.
Retail includes large employers and workplaces, and the potential to quickly affect profits through stoppages. The sector needs to be unionised in a similar way to “traditional” union (read men’s) jobs, so workers can use this industrial muscle.
The collapse of Arcadia is only the latest step in job losses across retail and hospitality likely to continue and escalate. Socialists in the trade unions and Labour Party should raise clear demands to guarantee everyone a job or retraining on full pay, and fight for the whole movement to take them up.