The callous treatment of Laura Ashley workers

Dublin’s Grafton Street has long been a major showpiece for what Ireland’s retailing business has to sell to the public in terms of consumer goods, from a needle, not so much to the proverbial anchor as to the €5,000 designer handbag.

This week, however, it is witness to another side of retailing – the mean and exploitative.

Toward the top of the street near St Stephen’s Green, passersby will see a picket of mainly women workers outside the now closed doors of the Laura Ashley store. The twenty two workers were told unceremoniously on 24 September that the shop was to close within weeks and that they would be paid the bare statutory redundancy. They were also told if there were any job vacancies in other Laura Ashley stores, they would have to apply for them as if they had no history with the company. Beyond this, the company refused to go, either in relation to saving the jobs or in the improvement of severance terms.

Horrified at the company’s crass attitude, these Laura Ashley workers, with their trade union Mandate, served strike notice and placed pickets on Friday of last week. Speaking with them on the picket line reveals much about their integrity as workers and the heartlessness some big business sectors against the background of the catastrophic crisis in the Irish economy.

Some of the workers on the picket line had worked for Laura Ashley for over ten years. Despite the fact that this company is a household name in trendy clothes and fancy house furnishing, their wages were pathetically low. Shop floor workers were paid €10.18 an hour which would give a basic pay of less than €20,000 a year before tax.

The best paid workers in the design section were on a wage of €11.44 an hour as well as a commission depending on sales. However, the commission was dependent on targets set by management which could be quite high. Just how modest their wages were, would be brought home to those in the design department who visited the luxurious homes of sometimes very wealthy clients of the company in order to advise them on expensive redecoration.

In view of the callous way they have been treated, the striking workers speak ruefully of their loyalty to the company and their willingness to always go the extra mile when asked. Sometimes this left them trying to answer difficult questions from customers. For example, last year, customers noticed huge discrepancies between the prices charged by Laura Ashley in Dublin and in Britain for the same items. One newspaper gave the example of a sofa retailing for €735 in Britain and the North but on sale for €1,080 here. When it appears to the customer that the explanation for this is the greed of the retailer, it puts staff in a difficult position.

Laura Ashley is now owned by Malaysian business interests. In the first half of this year, the chain’s profits were €11.4 million. The closure of the shop on Grafton Street was prompted by the interest which the Disney company has in taking over the premises. Disney wants to extend its merchandise outlets to Ireland. Consequently, the offer it made the management of Laura Ashley to buy the lease in Grafton Street was apparently too good to be turned down, albeit meaning that twenty two workers would lose out.

For now, the loyal workers of Laura Ashley are most disloyally left out in the cold by the company they served so well. However, their fellow workers in many other stores around the country should take serious note of how they have been treated. Should the company persist with its present attitude, the Grafton Street workers might decide to call on their colleagues in other stores to come out on strike in sympathy. Should that happen, it would be the most effective possible tool in obliging a truculent employer to come to heel.

Disney should also be put on the spot. The haste in throwing these workers on the dole may arise from management’s anxiety to oblige the Disney merchandise section to be installed in the Grafton Street premises in time for the Christmas consumer rush. Disney has a massively profitable media and entertainment conglomerate with total turnover reaching a massive €36 billion last year. Its merchandise arm, which is to take up operations in the premises from which the Laura Ashley workers are being evicted, made profits of $609 million last year around the world. The directors and major shareholders should be told that it would not be a good start to be associated with the callous treatment of Irish workers and that they should prevail on Laura Ashley management to accede to the workers’ demand for fair play before they move in.