Across the UK’s closing retailers, there is a poignant juxtaposition: between the bright, almost celebratory posters promising huge discounts and the chatter on the shop floor. “You’d think they’d treat us nicely, considering what’s going on, but they’re basically just working out ways to sack us,” says a worker in one retailer that is making heavy staffing cuts. She clearly wants to talk, but adds: “Please be careful, I have children to look after. None of us wants to the be the one to get sacked.”
The British Retail Consortium identified in 2016 that nearly half a million people will be vulnerable to job losses from the high street, 70% of whom will be women. In the two years since, job losses on the high street have been unrelenting – with the past few months seeing closures at House of Fraser, Poundworld, Mothercare and Marks & Spencer. Since 2008, 11,000 high street outlets have gone under.
The cause is multifaceted, with analysts suggesting everything from the growth of online retailers to the price of parking. But the victims are clear: 60% of retail workers are women and the roles most vulnerable to job losses – in sales and on the shop floor – are dominated by women. In stores such as House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer, more than 70% of the workforce is female.
Michelle Gray has worked at the budget retailer Poundworld for more than five years. The chain went into administration on 11 June. When we first made contact, she did not know if she would lose her job and was too scared to speak on the phone: “I don’t want to give too much away … just on the off chance we miraculously make it through,” she wrote in a text message. She said her family would not keep their house if she lost her job and was unable to get another one.
Like many retail workers, Gray does not get her information from her employer; she gets it from the media. At the time of our first conversation, she was hoping that the bid by Poundworld’s founder, Chris Edwards, to buy the store back would mean safety for her and her colleagues. She was optimistic: salegoers swamped her store in the home counties when the news about the closures broke, meaning she did not even have time to stick to our agreed messaging slot at lunch: “It’s like Christmas, but without the income,” she says.
Her hopes were dashed after she checked social media. “Just seen on Twitter that Chris Edwards has stopped bidding, as the administrators have set the threshold too high. That’s it then. Pretty much set in stone. It’s over,” she said. “I feel … just empty. That was our last hope. I guess I’ll spend the evening back on the computer trying to find jobs. Again.”
Gray found out last Thursday that her store will close today. “ All the sites will be gone next week, as no agreement has been reached for a sale. I’m heartbroken.” She has two interviews lined up for next week: one at a stationery shop and another at a perfume shop, but neither offer enough hours for her to make ends meet. “The best I could find was 22 hours … Really, I need at least 30, but hopefully there’ll be overtime.”
Kemi Okoye, 32, lost her job at John Lewis in 2009 and has struggled to find a new one since she started looking this year, after having three boys, now aged four, five and nine. Okoye shares a room with her three children and her partner, not out of necessity – they have another room – but as a means of holding things together. Her nine-year-old son is autistic and becomes distressed and violent in response even to small changes. Her husband is a part-time cleaner, struggling to find more hours, and Okoye regularly forgoes meals to make sure the rest of her family can eat: “It’s so hard. Every time I hear about another store closing I just think: Oh my God. What’s going to happen to me?” she says.
“Women’s jobs are disappearing,” says Liz Sewell, who runs Grow, a project to help mothers back into work: “Historically, a good quality job in the retail sector was a golden ticket for women, providing stable jobs with flexible part-time hours and proper holiday, so women who have caring responsibilities can do both. Today it can be ruthless.”
She says it is particularly difficult for women who are already disadvantaged: “Jobs have become much more flexible, but in a way that benefits the employer. So, if you’re a woman with a child who can’t come in at the drop of a hat, that works against you. Even worse if you’re a woman whose child has a medical condition.”
She points out small changes that have come alongside the advent of the internet that have little to do with a person’s ability to do the job. “Most companies recruit online now, which can be terrible. You have to fill in online questionnaires and weird personality tests, which just creates barriers if you don’t know the rules of the game,” says Sewell. “We are working with about 200 women at the moment. Many of them are from minority ethnic backgrounds, for whom English isn’t their first language. Personality questionnaires are culturally specific. So, it makes it very hard for them and it’s easy for employers to just say no.”
The loss of jobs on the high street does not necessarily mean a net loss for business in the UK – the online retail sector has shown huge growth in recent years. But there are concerns that many of the women on shop floors will not be first in line for the new roles as data analysts and factory workers.
The British Retail Consortium is trying to work around this. “Physical stores may be disappearing, but different kinds of roles will replace them. Rather than having a lowest common denominator view that jobs will go and that’s it, we want to think about what existing skills can be harnessed for the jobs of the future,” says the group’s skills policy officer, Fionnuala Horrocks-Burns.
It is working on an online careers portal that will provide development opportunities for retail workers. “We want people to be equipped with skills that allow them to remain or to move on,” says Horrocks-Burns.
This could make a difference to the many women who have worked in retail their whole lives. “It’s all I’ve done since leaving school … I’ve never had the option for training or progression in the job,” says Clare Heeney, 32, who also works in a Poundworld that is slated to close. There will be no redeployment opportunities for her.
Programmes such as Grow show that investment in training and mentoring is effective. Harpreet Grewal, 34, didn’t know how to apply for a job before she went on the scheme last year. “I hadn’t done it [applied for a job] in eight years. It was all very different by the time I started looking,” she says.
Grewal previously had lived in a garage while working two jobs – one in a factory, the other in Matalan. A divorce following an arranged marriage had left her cash-strapped; without access to a kitchen, she survived on £1 pizzas that she got from the fast-food shop next door on her way home in the late evening. Her life was lived on a hamster wheel; making ends meet every day took up any time that might have been spent looking towards the future.
But basic mentoring and support has allowed her to move on to a job with better hours, better pay and consistent training opportunities. Sewell helped Grewal to draft a CV and to take smaller roles in other stores that could be a stepping stone to her new job. She recently secured a full-time role at Vision Express as a sales assistant. “I’m so happy. The hours are perfect. The pay is good and they have already provided me with training, which leads to increased pay. There is more training coming up,” says Grewal over the phone, adding: “It’s definitely a happy ending for me.”
But Sewell points out that it is not an easy transition for her clients. “The women I’m working with are having to work difficult hours and make do and mend. It’s patchwork: women sewing together a way of surviving.”
As these retail roles on which women have so long depended decline, Sewell believes that a cultural shift needs to take place around women in the modern workplace. “We need to be creative and flexible, not excluding women as we go through these changes,” she says. “In other words, we need to have a view around working that actually allows people to survive and live decent lives.”