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Chaplains help out as BHS failure hits 11,000 workers

29 July 2016


Closing down: a pedestrian walks past a branch of BHS in Chesterfield

Closing down: a pedestrian walks past a branch of BHS in Chesterfield

AS THE demand grows for Sir Philip Green to be stripped of his knighthood over the failure of BHS, his former employees are wonder­ing how to cope with the conse­quences of the chain’s demise.

More than 20,000 of the com­pany’s retired staff face a cut in income caused by a £500-million pension-fund shortfall, and about 11,000 current workers face immi­nent unemployment.

Many BHS branches are closing this week, and the remainder will be gone by 20 August. Around the country, members of Workplace Chaplaincy Mission UK have been helping staff to come to terms with the end of a job which, for many, had lasted decades.

The team leader at the Black Country Urban Industrial Mission, the Revd Bill Mash, has spent time with people at the BHS branch in the Merry Hill Centre, Dudley. “There is nucleus of long-serving staff whose enormous loyalty has been a tremendous asset to the chain, and made it what it was,” he said. “That loyalty has not exactly been matched by what happened at the top.

”I spoke to one lady who has been there for 22 years. She said that it was like breaking up a family. Her colleagues are her friends, and she will miss them. They seem resigned, but they are remarkably cheerful, too.”

”The union say they are good at dealing with specific grievances, but they appreciate the work of a good chaplain as someone who helps pick up some of the emotional problems. The union can help you fight a battle, but that takes an emotional toll, and that’s where we are useful. We are doing our best to show people care.”

In Grimsby, Lincolnshire, the BHS store will close next Wednes­day despite being one of the chain’s best-performing branches. The urban and industrial chaplain for north-east Lincolnshire, the Revd Mary Vickers, has been in contact with the staff of about 60 since BHS went into administration in April.

The mood was not so much anger as frustration at the lifestyle of Sir Philip, holidaying on his yacht as the business collapsed, Mrs Vickers reported. “They say ‘That’s at our cost.’ A lot of people have worked there for many years, and, although they are upset, they are quite stoic about it.

”There is also a lot of worry about the pension situation. Some were ask­­ing: ‘Do I look for another job, or I do I stay?’, but quite a few are staying on for redundancy. They take the attitude: ‘He has done me out of my job, I’m going to do him out of some money.’

”Several are fearful they will not find another job. Apart from a House of Fraser branch, there are no other big stores in the area. Grimsby is a big food-processing town, and there is work there, but it’s totally different to retail.”

Staff have also been upset by the public’s attitude. People have been going in like vultures to pick up bargains, and then being rude, with comments like: ‘If you’d been more efficient, you might not have lost your jobs,’ which, in this instance, is not the case. I have also spent a lot of time in the stockroom with arms around someone in tears, treating them as human beings.”

Sir Philip has threatened legal action against the Commons Work and Pensions Committee chairman, Frank Field, over his comments that the Sir Philip was “much worse” than Robert Maxwell, who raided the pension pot at the Mirror news­paper group.

In a BBC radio interview, Mr Field, whose committee report this week branded Sir Philip as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, described him as a “Napoleon fig­ure” floating around on his yacht, having “orchestrated” an act of “old-fashioned, classical asset-stripping”.

Christian Aid said that the report highlighted how the involvement of UK tax havens in the BHS affair obscured what was really happen­ing, and called for greater trans­parency in their operations.

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