Clarks’ workers continue to strike amid shoe retailer’s ‘fire and rehire’ policy

Workers at Clarks in Somerset are continuing to strike amid a ‘fire and rehire’ policy they say will reduce pay and conditions.

The shoe retailer posted a record loss of £180m for last financial year with a £600m drop in revenue – down 45%. It said the move would protect the future of the firm which was founded in 1825.

Clarks was taken over by Hong Kong-based private equity firm LionRock Capital earlier this year – and its decision to dismiss workers and renegotiate new contracts has been heavily criticised.

The strike started on October 4 when more than 100 staff walked out of the Westway warehouse, in Street. Negotiations are still ongoing.

Mendip Trades Union Council told Business Live ’s sister site Somerset Live the terms first presented to workers at the centre include an average reduction in pay from £11.16 to £9.50 per hour, the abolition of paid 30-minute meal breaks and daily 10-minute coffee breaks, and cuts in sick pay and redundancy entitlements.

The union is calling on Clarks to scrap what it called the “diminishing of terms and conditions”.

On Wednesday (October 20) Clarks said it had agreed to “significant concessions” compared to the original proposal to distribution centre employees. including:

A pay rise for over half of Westway employees, to an hourly rate of £9.50

The introduction of allowances to recognise and reward specialist skills

A commitment that those affected by a pay reduction will be protected from the effects of this until 2023 by top-up payments from the company.

A commitment to working with individual employees that are concerned about a drop in income to find solutions (such as working extra hours) that could reduce the impact of these proposed changes

No change to holiday entitlement, which it said remained above statutory minimum

Clarks claimed that compromises were also reached over negotiations for proposed sick pay, paid breaks, and its non-contractual redundancy policy.

Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of the trade union representing the workers Community, said members were left with “no other choice” but to take industrial action.

“We have been incredibly saddened and disappointed by the recent actions of Clarks,” he told BusinessLive .

“Fire-and-rehire is no way to thank your employees or your customers. The workers most adversely impacted by these changes are those who have been employees for decades, sticking with the company through thick and thin, stepping up in the last year during the challenging pandemic period.”

Clarks said it had been consulting with unions and staff on the proposed changes since May – and was “disappointed” its staff had voted to strike. It added that the ‘fire and rehire’ policy was always regarded as the “very last resort”.

A spokesperson said: “Despite new investment, the scale of the impact from the pandemic has meant that the company has needed to review all its operations, including Westway, leaving no stone unturned in every part of the business to ensure the long-term future of the company.”

The firm said it was “not signalling out” Westway employees – and all UK staff had been affected, with many leaving or taking voluntary pay cuts.

Similar industrial action had been threatened by corporate and management staff at the nearby Clarks headquarters, also in Street, but those negotiations were a separate matter to the ongoing discussions with workers at the Westway centre.

Clarks said head office staff had not gone on strike and 98% had so far accepted new terms and conditions.

“For historical reasons Westway has a two-tier workforce with staff doing the same jobs working side by side on different rates of pay and terms. Those employed many years ago have significantly better terms than their colleagues which is unsustainable for us as a business and negatively impacts morale, recruitment and retention,” the spokesperson said.

“This is about the future of the company and its sustainability, but it is also about fairness across those working in our distribution centre via the implementation of a single hourly rate of pay, representing a pay rise for over half of the workforce.”

Wells MP James Heappey said he met with Clarks management and constituents over the ongoing dispute. In a video on Facebook he said “strike action was not the way forward”.

When Business Live contacted Mr Heappey for comment in relation to the video, he said: “I have been contacted directly by a small number of Clarks employees who are constituents to discuss their concerns and have offered to facilitate meetings with these affected constituents to discuss their contracts if they wish me to do so.

“This casework is an important part of my work as the local MP. I hope that I will be able to find a more acceptable compromise for each of the constituents who have asked me to intervene on their behalf.”

Clarks told Business Live on Tuesday (October 19) that more than 35% of Westway staff had accepted its new terms and conditions.

“We remain hopeful for a constructive conclusion in due course,” the company spokesperson added.

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Hannah BakerSouth West Business Editor