Fears are rising that thousands of Irish workers in big fashion chains and general retailing will not survive a winter jobs cull, even as the lifting of level 5 restrictions saw shoppers flocking back to stores today.
It comes as the landscape for Irish city centres could become a lot bleaker amid doubts that Britain’s Arcadia, which owns Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Wallis, Miss Selfridge, Evans, and Burton, will find a buyer after going into administration in Britain and Ireland this week.
In the Republic, trade union Mandate has warned that 900 jobs are at risk if Arcadia collapses altogether.
On Tuesday, Debenhams, another struggling British retailer, said it would close down all its 124 outlets and its online store in the UK, which employ 12,000 people. The retailer had already controversially shut all its stores in the Republic in April, even as it continued to sell products online into the Republic from Britain.
Trade union and employer experts say that the fallout of the retail crisis, which has been accelerated by the Covid-19 storm, cannot be downplayed and warn that many workers going back to work this week could be laid off permanently when stocks are sold down after Christmas.
As Irish shops reopened, new figures showed there were almost 56,900 people working in retail and wholesale – accounting for almost one-in-five of all workers in the sector – who needed the Pandemic Unemployment Payment to make ends meet during the latest lockdown.
A large number of retail workers will go back to work as the level 5 restrictions are lifted but there are fears the shops in the once-busy centres will again shake out many workers after the Christmas rush.
"You would have to really worry about the sustainability of a lot of those retail jobs in the first few months of next year when the Christmas rush has dissipated and under the possibility of further lockdowns," warned leading economist Jim Power.
The Mandate trade union said it fears most for fashion retailers and drapery stores, which have faced the brunt of the Covid lockdowns. Other big retail employers, including the supermarkets which were allowed to stay open, have boomed this year.
Mandate welcomes government intervention on Debenhams dispute - Mandate Trade Union Ireland https://t.co/WqCBMvyF51— Mandate Trade Union (@MandateTU) November 26, 2020
Mandate general secretary Gerry Light said there were concerns about retail jobs through the winter and that Government intervention would be required to sustain jobs until a recovery can get under way.
He said the Government must protect “traditional bricks and mortar retail in particular and the many thousands of jobs that it currently provides".
Fergal O’Brien, policy director at business group Ibec, warned that following the Christmas pick-up, retail jobs could again be lost starting from January.
Citing an estimated €10bn of additional savings that households have built up over the crisis, Ibec said it was optimistic about the outlook of the economy, but the timing of the recovery would be driven by the rollout of the vaccines.
And Mr O’Brien warned that “the cumulative impact of the lockdowns” will test the viability of many retailers next year.
"The cash is certainly there. It will come back into the economy," Mr O'Brien said.
British retail fashion groups were facing a crisis even before the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.
They were being squeezed by other more successful European fashion rivals as well as by high rents and the accelerated shift toward online driven by the pandemic.