Friday, 13 January 2012

Sacked shop workers occupy La Senza

Update: the occupation has now ended in a victory for the workers, who have been paid all monies owed.

Workers at lingerie retailer La Senza in Dublin have been occupying their workplace since Monday. The 25 members of staff taking part took over the store after losing their jobs, as the company has refused to pay out any redundancy pay. Importantly, they are refusing to leave the store until all 100 redundant staff receive every penny that they are owed.

La Senza applied for administration just before Christmas, citing "trading conditions" and "the overall macroeconomic environment." As a result, 1,300 jobs are set to go in the UK. For the Irish workers already sacked, this means that the fruits of their labour over the past month are also being robbed from them. A report from the Irish Socialist Workers Party explains that "within the [Irish] laws of liquidation the workers are considered to be creditors and wages owed are bottom of the list" to be paid back. As such, the most viable option seems to be applying for statutory redundancy pay.

However, whilst the law offers scant protection and the Mandate trade union gives the matter a single sentence on its website, the workers aren't giving in that easily.

As former supervisor Tara Keane put it;
We’re not going down without a fight. We've been told that La Senza will not be giving us a cent. We’ve worked hard for the company, especially over Christmas, even with the threat hanging over us. Some of us have worked for the company for a long time. We don’t want a lot. We’ll be here as long as we can be here.
This willingness to take direct action by low paid shop workers reflects a growing awareness that it is those at the bottom who will bear the brunt of the bosses' economic failings. We are, after all, just another cost and in times of difficulty we can be dropped as such. Thus, the only recourse that workers have is to organise and defend our own interests.

It is important, too, to note that this won't happen through the channels of trade union officialdom. The retail workers' union Mandate may be "discuss[ing] issues of concern to our members," but there is no indication that it is doing much else. By contrast the workers, taking matters into their own hands by way of a sit-in, have forced the issue into the limelight and put up a real struggle against what's going on. As one worker told the Irish Times, "we have to stand up for ourselves because it doesn’t look like the Government is going to."

This offers a powerful example to other low-paid retail workers - who are disproportionately women - about the need to self-organise. It's not just the government who won't stand up for us, but the trade union leadership too. Workers can only win real victories and concessions when we stop looking to others to save us and take direct action.