Retail industry and unions call for State intervention to lead sector out of crisis

Committee discusses rents, low pay and need for forum for recovery strategy

Retail Excellence says many retail landlords are ignoring the code’s provisions to engage with tenants on rent arrears. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Retail Excellence says many retail landlords are ignoring the code’s provisions to engage with tenants on rent arrears. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Representatives of the retail industry have told a committee of TDs and Senators that the Government’s nine month-old code of practice between landlords and retail tenants on commercial rents is “not worth the paper it is written on”.

Duncan Graham, the chief executive of sectoral lobby group, Retail Excellence, said the voluntary code is “not strong enough and doesn’t have enough teeth”.

He told a hearing of an Oireachtas joint enterprise committee on Wednesday morning that many retail landlords are ignoring the code’s provisions to engage with tenants on rent arrears, and are instead demanding full payment for anti-virus closure periods and issuing court actions against retailers that won’t pay up.

“Some landlords are just digging their heels in and saying ‘read the lease’... It is leading to closures,” said Mr Graham.

The committee also heard from retail sector trade unionists, who called for the Government to set up a retail stakeholders’ forum involving businesses, workers and the State, to forge an agreed new recovery strategy for the sector that also considers improvements in working conditions and issues such as the shift from trade in shops to online.

The call by the retail sector group of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was backed by many of the politicians who tuned in to the committee hearing.

Retail Excellence also signalled the industry’s support for such a forum to address a swathe of issues, including workers’ issues as well as industry concerns, but argued “now is not the time” to raise wage rates.

“Give us some space” to first deal with the challenges presented by Covid, said Mr Graham.

‘Endemic’ low pay

Ictu’s Macdara Doyle, a member of the union umbrella organisation’s retail group, told the committee that low pay is “endemic” in the retail sector. He said post-pandemic recovery in the retail sector “cannot come at any price” and he highlighted that one-in-five recipients of Housing Assistance Payments from the State are retail workers.

“How can we transform bad jobs into good jobs?” he asked. Ictu is seeking the extension of union collective bargaining rights across the sector and the restoration of abolished joint labour committees, that previously set wage rates in the sector.

“Good employers have nothing to fear from this agenda,” said Mr Doyle.

The retail union Mandate’s general secretary, Gerry Light, said the sector has traditionally been treated as a “Cinderalla sector” by the State, which bails out other industries but not retail. He also criticised the sector’s employers for traditionally arguing against increases in wage rates, when, Mr Light said, all research had “debunked” the theory that increases in retail pay costs jobs. He also expressed optimism that worker and employer representatives could work together post-Covid to rebuild the sector.

On the issue of rents, Fine Gael TD and former minister for enterprise Richard Bruton, expressed scepticism that the Government can legally interfere in contracts between landlords and retail tenants, by forcing landlords to give shops breaks on their rent arrears, as sought by Retail Excellence.

Mr Graham said that institutional landlords, especially certain shopping centre owners, are causing the “most difficulties” for shop owners on retail rents.

Mr Bruton said that while many landlords are large institutions, some are small business people themselves with heavy debts: “Landlords are not always sitting back sipping their claret.”

Keith Rogers of Ecco Shoes, who appeared alongside Mr Graham to represent the industry, said the Government needs to “give the industry a leg-up, a dig-out” on the issue of rents.

He also called for local authorities to appoint town centre retail managers, who would act like shopping centre managers, with responsibility for attracting the right mix of retailers and other business types into towns.