'I've gone months with no information about the future'

By Philippa Goodrich
Business reporter

Image source, Kate Hughes
Image caption,
Kate Hughes heard her job was in jeopardy from the news on the BBC

Kate Hughes is one of thousands of staff in the Edinburgh Woollen Mill group facing further uncertainty about her job, after the company declared its intention to appoint administrators a week ago.

Kate, who was the manager of a Jaeger shop in Alloa, near Stirling, found out that the company was seeking help to save the business when she switched on the lunchtime news a week ago.

"Both my husband and I just sat there and looked at each other and said, 'Really?'"

It wasn't until later that afternoon that an email arrived from the company, explaining its position, but, said Kate, it contained "no information about going forward".

The Edinburgh Woollen Mill group (EWM), which owns the Peacocks and Jaeger clothing brands, as well as the Edinburgh Woollen Mill shops themselves, described current trading conditions as "brutal".

It said it had made the move towards appointing administrators because, "it gives us a short breathing space while we weigh up options for the group."

Those options, it said, might include a sale of some or all of the businesses, as well as "significant cost-cutting and closures".

Across its brands 21,000 jobs are now at risk while the talks continue to try to find a solution for the group, which is owned by billionaire Philip Day.

Image source, Getty Images

The groups also owns fashion chain Bonmarche, but its future is not part of the current negotiations.

Other EWM staff who have contacted the BBC say the first they or their colleagues heard of the potential closures was when the "Closing Down" posters were delivered to shops last Friday morning.

"Our area managers are telling us: 'Just behave like normal, and pretend nothing's happening'. They're not telling us anything", said one employee, who didn't want to be named, and added that it's difficult to know what to tell the customers.

"We know as much as they do. I could just record myself on a daily loop saying: 'No, we don't know anything. No, we don't have a date.'"

Image source, Getty Images

Like many High Street retailers, the EWM group has suffered from the shift in buying habits from physical stores to online. This trend was accelerated by lockdown, when non-essential shops were forced to close.

EWM took advantage of the help offered by the government, and like the majority of its employees, Kate Hughes was furloughed in March.

When lockdown restrictions were eased in the summer she received an email to say that her store would re-open.

But then the company changed its mind and she found herself going into the shop to pack it up.

It is now closed, and Kate doesn't know if she will be redeployed, or can expect a redundancy notice. At this stage she assumes it will be the latter.

"I can't see it going any other way", she says.

"I can appreciate the fact that times are difficult in the retail sector," she adds, "but it's the lack of information and the lack of interest in the staff. There has been no emotional support whatsoever".

Another employee, whose store closed down three weeks ago, and who also asked to remain anonymous, echoed the complaint about the lack of information since the onset of the pandemic.

"The company have treated myself and my team in an appalling way", she said.

"All through lockdown there was no communication, or mixed messages and it will not improve now.

"I have not received any notice of redundancy or consultation", she added.

EWM group says it is aware of its employees' feelings. A spokeswoman told the BBC that as soon as EWM group had filed its intention to appoint administrators, letting the staff know was its "first priority".

Affected groups were informed immediately, before the news was shared with the media, she said.

EWM has appointed business advisory company FRP to review its operations. That review is expected to last around two weeks, during which time the company is protected from its creditors.

At the end of this process a decision will be taken as to whether there is a future for the business as a going concern, or whether the only option is for it to go into administration.

"We appreciate the current uncertainty over jobs is unsettling for employees. Management is working hard to save the business and preserve as many jobs as possible across our stores", the spokeswoman said.

"As soon as we can communicate which jobs have been saved we will be in touch directly with employees to inform them."

But some employees have no appetite for waiting any longer. Kate Hughes is already looking for other jobs, and is ready to take whatever is available.

She summed up her situation like this: "I've gone from being a manager, to interviewing for a part-time job in a coffee shop", she said.