The helplessness of the redundant

Before letting rip at HMV staff, remember that while you have lost your £10 gift card, the person you are screaming at has lost their livelihood.

On Christmas Eve 2008, I found out I would be losing my job. There is no day of the year to find out something like that, but it seems that Christmas Eve is a particularly bad one. I remember it very clearly, even down to what I was wearing. I was packing to go home over Christmas and I got a text off my friend Susie, telling me that the shop we both worked in had been taken over by administrators. And just like that, I knew my job would be gone.

The truth is, it was actually eight months later that my job finally went, but it did go, in the same way a terminal illness sucks the life out of a human. Long, slow, arduous. I worked in Zavvi, previously Virgin Megastore, in Cardiff. I started out as a Saturday girl, and when I graduated university and still didn’t know what to do with my life, I went full time. I’m not looking at it with the rose-tinted spectacles of time, but I loved that place. I loved the fact I was surrounded by music all day. I loved that I worked with strange, beautiful people, who liked all the same stuff I did. If they ever read this, they may laugh, but that shop was the first place I ever felt like I belonged somewhere. I did a lot of finding out who I was while I was there. And let’s face it, as full time jobs go, mine was a complete doss. Maybe I was just lazy. But there was always time to stand around, debating over what music went on next, gossiping about the last night out you had, sleeping off your hangover in the stockroom. It was a wonderful place.

There were tell tale signs for ages. Little things that, had I been more clued up on life, might have made me realise what was coming. Overtime stopped getting paid, fewer Christmas temps, problems ordering new stock, etc etc etc. I remember there being rumours of trouble, talking about it behind the tills. But when I got that text off Susie, I felt like I’d been smacked in the face. And so I reacted in the way any rational person would. I cried all the way home on the train and then I drank two bottles of rum with my friend Brett. I don’t have very good memories of Christmas 2008.

When I went back to work, on 27 December, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To this day, that shift is still the worst eight hours I have ever had. That day I realised how selfish and horrible other people can be. We all got to work and there was a grim determination in the air. It was like none of us wanted to be there, but we would get through it together. Then trading started, and all I remember is being shouted at by angry people who couldn’t use their gift cards. If you know anything about companies who go into administration you will know that gift cards immediately become invalid. It is not the choice of the staff. Let me say that again. IT IS NOT THE CHOICE OF THE STAFF YOU ARE SHOUTING AT. If you are the kind of person who would get angry about that, then think about this. You have just lost your £10 gift card. The person you are screaming at has just lost their livelihood. You may not think there are many people who would be that thoughtless, I certainly didn’t. But for the following six weeks, its all I can remember. We had people who were very understanding, kind, sorry for us. But my overriding memory, sadly, is not of our regulars who came to offer best wishes, but the many people who were angry at us for their loss. I understand the frustration, but I was too busy worrying about how I would pay my rent or find a job in January to be too sympathetic.

So Zavvi remained for a further six weeks. In that time, administrators tried to find buyers for the company as a whole, and then as parts. Smaller shops were closed and their stock passed to bigger stores like ours. It was like bucketing water out of a sinking boat, except it wasn’t water, it was people and their children and their mortgages and their homes and their ability to support themselves. Finally it came down to the last day. We learned from our manager, a long-haired jumpy character named Pete who loved caffeine and flowery shirts, that there was a potential buyer for our shop. He was buying five other Zavvis, turning them into his own company and he wanted ours. But there were negotiations first and it might not happen. So we had to pack up the shop. Literally everything had to be put into boxes and taped up. Every single shelf cleared, every corner of every stockroom emptied. It was the most depressing day ever. I remember wanting to cry, and being really glad my friend Jess was there. She ran the book department and I don’t know what I would have done without here in those few weeks. After work I went to the cinema with my housemates. When I came out of the cinema, I had a text.

"We’re bought!"

Someone had bought Cardiff Zavvi! I still had a job! The next day we rushed back to work, signed new contracts and unpacked the boxes. We were trading by the afternoon under the name Head Entertainment. It was amazing! Back to the pub, this time to celebrate.

But the joy didn’t last long. The following seven months were a stark lesson for me in just how underhand and ruthless some people are in business. It’s quite shocking really. I won’t ramble on with the many, many details of how the whole Head Entertainment mess began, but a basic description would be; evil man buys out desperate shop, evil man screws desperate staff about, desperate staff realise they will lose jobs and also any redundancy entitlement. Evil man wins, desperate staff lose.

It’s a long, complicated story, that I don’t understand entirely, even now, but suddenly, less than a month after we were bought out, we found ourselves in the awful position of knowing that our jobs would end, and that we wouldn’t get any money at the end of it. Somehow it was even worse. And for the months leading up to summer, we all worked not knowing if we’d have a shop to come to the next day. But we had to work. I couldn’t find another job. Some people left. But the ones who remained were all in the same position. Stuck. Helpless. When the final cut came in July and we learned we were closing for good, it was almost a relief. We had to pack the shop up again. We all walked to the pub and had our last lunch together. Then we spent the whole night drowning sorrows. It was nice in a way, the whole thing bonded everyone quite tightly. Some of those people are still great friends of mine, and I hope they will remain as such. But really it was terrible.

It would be another month before I finally found a new job, this time in HMV. I didn’t want to go, and true enough, I hated every day I worked there. I don’t know why. I made some great friends there, people who became a big part of my life at the time, and we had some amazing times together. But I was utterly miserable, and less than a year later, they cut my hours down to one day a week, with 24 hours notice, essentially making me redundant again. And the old feelings returned.

In a society that is built on debt, when you spend two months out of work, and you have credit cards and rent and an overdraft to pay, you can easily be defeated. I had to admit defeat. I moved home, more experienced, maybe wiser, but completely broken. It took me a long time to pull myself back together. It took even longer to get the redundancy money owed to us by Head Entertainment. A two year court battle between us and the owners, entirely put together by our incredible floor manager Ev, a wonderfully funny, eccentric man, with a love of birds and woolen hats. He took them on, at an incredible cost to himself, and he won us the money in the end. But he shouldn’t have had to.

At the end of the day, you can't rant for hours about the government, and corporate companies and business and management. You’d probably be right. None of it is fair. People are screwed over all the time, just because they are small and the companies are big. Companies go under all the time because of mismanagement and greed and power hungry egomaniacs, and the people who suffer most are the people who started off at the bottom anyway. They just get trampled. But ranting doesn’t change anything. Neither does blogging about it. Because now HMV is in trouble and if they doesn’t find a buyer, that’s another 4,000 jobs gone, and whatever you read or write about it on the internet isn’t going to change that.

Except it's not 4,000 jobs. It’s 4,000 people. 4,000 families. 4,000 homes. Just like when our shop went under and it was me and my credit card bills. Jess and her mortgage. Dan and his kids, Tony and his retirement plans. People’s lives thrown into absolute chaos. It’s the scariest thing that ever happened to me, and probably to a lot of them too. I hope people realise that in the next few weeks, when they walk into a HMV and find out they can’t use their gift card anymore.

This piece originally appeared on A Barefoot Girl

People walk past the HMV shop in Piccadilly on January 15, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caitlin Leyshon blogs at A Barefoot Girl.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage