Women first in firing line as 7,000 jobs fall to crisis
Cuts at John Lewis, Boots and Burger King expected to unduly hit women, who fill 58pc of retail positions
THE crisis engulfing Britain’s battered high street deepened last night as John Lewis, Boots and Burger King announced almost 7,000 job losses and a raft of shop closures.
The cuts are expected to disproportionately hit women, who fill 58pc of retail positions.
John Lewis said that eight of its sites will remain shut for good – including a flagship 250,000 sq ft department store in Birmingham – with 1,300 of its staff ’s jobs at risk along with many more working in concessions.
Another 4,000 jobs are under threat at Boots, which is shutting almost 50 of its optician outlets across the country, while 50 Burger King restaurants may not return from lockdown.
Experts also warned that the cuts could trigger a tsunami of further closures as anchor sites are abandoned, hollowing out town centres that were already struggling.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said women were more likely to have been furloughed and hit hardest by job losses.
She said: “Now we see those job losses escalating. Combined with the impact of a looming crisis in the childcare sector and signs of rising pregnancy discrimination, women are undoubtedly bearing the economic brunt of this crisis.”
The closure of John Lewis’s Grand Central stores is a huge blow to Birmingham. It only opened five years ago as part of a £600m redevelopment of New Street Station.
Andy Street, Conservative mayor of the West Midlands and a former boss at
John Lewis, said: “The proposed closure of Birmingham’s John Lewis store risks being a dreadful mistake.”
John Lewis is also shutting stores in Watford, Heathrow airport and St Pancras station, as well as four At Home outlets in Croydon, Newbury, Swindon and Tamworth. Dame Sharon White, its chairman, said the sites being closed were struggling before lockdown and had to shut to protect the business.
Boots’ lay-offs will affect about 7pc of its workforce.
Retail consultant Richard Hyman said the department store and chemist chains are likely to launch further cutbacks in coming months and he was surprised tmore closures had not been announced. He said: “The can has been kicked down the road but … we are nearing the end of the road and painful issues are going to have to be addressed.”
The high street was already on its knees before lockdown as online rivals such as Amazon attracted ever greater numbers of customers. This shift has since been turbo-charged, leaving far too many bricks and mortar stores to handle dwindling shopper numbers.
At least 40 retailers have collapsed this year, affecting more than 2,600 stores and close to 60,000 workers, the Centre for Retail Research said.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said coronavirus had accelerated many of the trends that were already under way.
She said: “The pandemic has posed a huge challenge for the viability of many shops, threatening their survival following months of greatly reduced turnover as a result of store closures.
“While the reopening of shops and other services is vital to recovery, footfall and in-store sales remain below normal level. Furthermore, months of rent has built up on shops forced to close and now represents a time bomb.”
Clare Bailey, of the Retail Champion consultancy, sounded a note of optimism, suggesting that some consumers will continue to favour independent retailers at the expense of chains because of their superior levels of service.
‘Exceptional”, says Rolls-Royce boss Warren East when describing the current moment. If only the same could be said of Britain’s most illustrious engineering company. It is bleeding cash – £3bn of it in the first six months to be precise, as orders evaporate and demand to service planes disappears too – a revelation that wiped 11pc off its share price in one fell swoop.
Still, even that beats East’s last public outing – a “nervous” smirk on TV as 9,000 employees were about to be handed their P45s but at least he’s trying to make up for the gaff with a promise to treat all employees with “dignity and respect”.
East is right of course. British Airways, easyJet, Virgin Atlantic and the other major airlines are the obvious casualties of what he calls “a historic shock in civil aviation”, yet Rolls-Royce has been caught in the eye of the storm too.
And East thinks it will “take several years to recover”, maybe as long as seven years, the most pessimistic forecast of any top industry figure yet.
What can Rolls do about it? Not much. Half its £16bn annual turnover comes from civil aerospace and with its two biggest customers, Airbus and Boeing, slashing production by as much as 40pc, it has little choice but to take the axe to costs too.
And don’t count on our boy wonder Chancellor to ride to the rescue. Yet while Rishi Sunak is posing as a humble Wagamama waiter and coming up with catchy taglines about eating out, vital engineering skills are in danger of being lost in places like Derby, where Rolls is based and the brunt of its latest job cuts will be felt.
So far, apart from a bespoke bailout for the UK arm of Spanish steel maker Celsa, the Chancellor seems to have little time for manufacturing; but if the Treasury has time to come up with a voucher scheme to encourage us to dine out again, even though it’s still not completely safe to do so, then surely it can think more long-term about the manufacturing sector.
Never mind “Build, Build, Build” or “Build Back Better” or any of the other clever slogans this Government seems obsessed with, nothing will be getting built if the factories have closed down.
Besides, here’s a far better catchphrase: “Build Britain out of this dreadful situation”, though it’s one that is unlikely to catch on at Number 10, not least because it is the work of trade union Unite and it involves the creation of a National Council of Recovery, something that sounds like a relic from the Soviet Union.
But by stimulating demand, the harm to manufacturing can be contained. There’s much the Government can do in terms of placing orders – where will the steel for HS2, if it ever goes ahead, come from for example?
But it should start with nuclear where enlisting the expertise of Rolls-Royce in building so-called mini-nukes would help to solve its current geo-political nightmare with China.
It would make it easier to ditch China General Nuclear Power Group from the plans to build giant new plants at Sizewell on the Suffolk coast and Bradwell in Essex, or scrap the proposals altogether.
It would also offer a greener and cheaper alternative to a technology that looks decidedly out of date already, and it would create jobs at a company in desperate need of a leg up – three birds with one stone. It’s time for the Chancellor to swap his bar apron for a hard hat.
‘Start by enlisting the expertise of Rolls-Royce in building so-called mini-nukes’
Time to go to work creating new jobs
So much for “jobs, jobs, jobs” anyway. After the mini-Budget, another mini-wave of redundancies. Hype versus reality in the space of just 24 hours and Sunak’s job protection scheme is already in tatters.
Four thousand job losses at Boots under the guise of its “transformation plan”, 1,600 at Burger King as it prepares to close one in 10 restaurants, and 1,300 at John Lewis after the decision was taken to shut eight department stores, capped an utterly dismal day for the high street.
Sunak believes a scheme awarding £1,000 to employers for every furloughed worker will make a “significant difference”. It’s certainly original but yesterday’s bloodbath suggests it isn’t nearly enough to stem the tide.
Many companies are waking up to the reality that business hasn’t rebounded to anything like the levels expected but their cost base, the bulk of which is labour in sectors like retail, remains the same.
All the stimulus in the world can’t solve that equation, nor can it halt the acceleration of structural changes like the shift to online.
John Lewis says as much as 70pc of its sales will be online this year and next, compared with 40pc before the pandemic, turning cavernous spaces like its flagship store in Birmingham city centre into an unsustainable overhead.
The Government is obsessing about the preservation of jobs that in many cases are no longer needed. More time needs to be spent creating them.
Former Barclays investment banking chief Roger Jenkins referred to financier Amanda Staveley as ‘the tart’, the High Court heard