Clarks accuses striking factory staff of hurling homophobic abuse

Joseph B. Hash

Striking workers at Clarks have been accused of shouting homophobic abuse at staff and attempting to damage cars as Britain lurches into a winter of discontent.

Picketers scattered nails across the road to be run over by traffic outside Clarks’ factory in Somerset and a striker shouted “take that, gay boy” at a member of staff heading into the building, the 196-year-old shoemaker claimed amid an increasingly bitter dispute over pay.

In a legal letter, Clarks also alleged that the trade union Community last month bussed in steel workers from South Wales to support Clarks staff – reviving the now mostly banned tactic of “flying pickets” used during the 70s miners strike.

It comes as a wave of strikes looms ahead of Christmas. DHL delivery drivers are plotting to take action over the festive period in a push for higher pay, and members of the Unite union walked out at two Weetabix factories on Monday.

At Clarks, warehouse workers have been protesting for weeks against a decision to fire and rehire them on “worse pay and conditions” following record annual losses of £180m. Victor Herrero, the company’s chief executive, quit this week after just nine months in charge.

The company said it had introduced a single hourly rate of pay to assist with its turnaround efforts. But workers at the Clarks Westway Distribution Centre in Street, Somerset, said the cuts had left them worse off. 

One picketer is alleged to have shouted the homophobic remarks at a Clarks employee as they were going into the building. 

The local police is understood to have recorded a hate crime after the same employee was referred to as a “little princess” on social media in a separate incident.

The employee told The Telegraph: “I was completely startled. I was gutted that adults, people I’ve been working with, feel it’s acceptable to do that. My husband and I have three children, and I felt upset for them. I do a job like anyone else.”

A group of around 20 strikers were outside the depot on Thursday afternoon. Among them was Andrew Thomas, 59, who said he had not witnessed any intimidation.

Mr Thomas, who has worked for Clarks for eight years, said: “We have tried to keep things as amicable as possible.

“We realise there are a lot of new faces going in there now, and from our side we have pretty much left them alone.”

A total of 83 Clarks employees are still on strike, with 240 working, insiders said.

Clarks instructed the law firm DLA Piper to write to Roy Rickhuss, Community’s general secretary, on Wednesday night to demand that the alleged unlawful practices stop. 

It is claimed that there was also incitement of violence against a management team member, including shouts of “hit him” and “push him in front of a car”. 

The retailer has threatened to take Community to court if the situation does not improve. 

Clarks said on Thursday that more than half of Westway employees have now signed the new contracts. It said it offered an increase to pay for all employees by 5.6pc to £10.03 per hour, but the proposal was rejected, with no counter bid. 

Community declined to comment on specific claims. A union spokesman said: “Community will continue to act in accordance with the law with regard to our ongoing dispute with Clarks.

“A total of 88pc of  workers voted to go on industrial action. The terms which Clarks are forcing on their workers will push them into financial destitution and even homelessness. 

“The company is still pushing for their employees to accept far-reaching reduced conditions, with everything from a reduction in hourly wage, sick pay and annual holidays, to a removal of 10-minute coffee breaks and complimentary hot drinks.

“We have repeatedly attempted conciliation with Clarks, and implored them to come back round the table with us and reach a deal that is suitable for both worker and company. So far, these attempts have been fruitless.

“We urge Clarks to call off the diminishing of terms and conditions and reconsider this move. We remain ready and waiting for productive discussions on how we can succeed together going forward when they are.”

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