‘It took them 10 minutes to lay off 600 people’

“IT took them 10 minutes to lay off 600 people.”

Sales agent Paul O’Brien succinctly sums up the gathering — or “all-hands meeting” as management called it — when everyone at the Talk Talk call centre in Waterford realised, midweek, they’d be looking for alternative employment within 30 days.

Part of the retentions team — responsible for “stopping customers from cancelling or leaving” — Paul is originally from Cork and has worked at Talk Talk for several years.

Married with one young child and paying a mortgage, he will sorely miss the income which came in at €65,000 last year mainly thanks to commissions and bonuses on top of a relatively low basic wage. “If you don’t make the sales, you don’t get paid.”

All staff received an email at about 12.30pm on Wednesday, asking them to gather at 3.30pm for a “strategic review” meeting.

After news leaked to the media of impending job losses, following government and IDA briefings in the morning, that meeting was brought forward to 2pm.

No questions were allowed from the floor and it did not last long. “It took them 10 minutes to lay off 600 people. We were told to go home, and thanks very much. Everyone was shocked.”

Eoin Houlihan, a part-time worker who was not there on Wednesday, was one of several who discovered the news via the internet.

“Someone had put it up on Facebook. When I read it, I was shocked. The way we’ve been treated, we’ve taken five or six pay cuts in the last two or three years.”

Cousins Isobel Kennedy and Olive Roche hugged yesterday as they and their colleagues gathered in small groups outside the Talk Talk offices, trying to make sense of the realisation that they will be unemployed inside a month.

“It was a great place to work, I have to say that,” Isobel said. “In the last two years, we’ve been over to The X Factor, to the final and we also won tickets to the Manchester audition when we saw Joe McElderry who ended up winning it. All that was through Talk Talk.”

They worked hard and were rewarded, while also developing a strong camaraderie among colleagues and customers. “People used to be relieved to be put through to the Waterford call centre. You’d be building up a rapport with them. I was told last Saturday by a customer, that I was a ‘gift from God’!”

Her cousin Olive agreed there was a “special” atmosphere at work, now lost forever following the midweek announcement. “It’s like a bereavement. That’s what it feels like, a bereavement. This is more than just a job, it’s a whole lifestyle.”

Helen Power, also in the retentions department, was one of the longest-serving current members of staff. “Eleven years of hard slog. I wasn’t due in until later today but I needed to come in and be with friends, it’s a great place to work.”

Slightly older than the average staff age of late 20s/early 30s, she said Talk Talk in Waterford was “like a big family” to her, now that her daughters were grown-up. “It’s like you lost your best friend, that’s how I feel today. It’s just horrible. They didn’t even ask us to take a wage cut and I’m sure every one of us would have said ‘ok’. We didn’t even get an option, it was just ‘you’re gone’. That’s really, really horrible. Anything is better than going on the dole.”

Peter Lageu is originally from the north-west of England but living in Wexford with his wife for the last four years — one of few to commute to Talk Talk. “I’ll start looking for work around Wexford because it means less of a commute. I’m open to everything at the moment. McDonalds in Wexford is hiring, I already spoke to the manager.”

Some at Talk Talk felt in recent months there was trouble ahead, Peter said, but never on such a complete scale. “Not in 30 days. We might have thought we’d see it out until after Christmas.”

Labhaoise Daly who worked in the email team for three-and-a-half years, said the main thing she’ll miss is “the people,” and doesn’t know what’s next for her. “I didn’t have a clue about this, to be honest, until I looked at the RTÉ News and thought, ‘what?’ I’m just so upset about it.”

Children to feed, bills to pay, mortgages to maintain, all topics that came up again and again as workers gathered yesterday and prepared to meet with the company and discuss what is coming down the track.

Uncertainty, for starters.

As Máiréad Biggs, whose husband only recently found work after two-and-a-half years on the dole, said: “Now people will be handing back the keys to their houses.”

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