Monday 24 October 2016

Gene Kerrigan: Clerys is not a department store it's an opportunity

The laws that allowed speculators act brutally towards the staff didn't just happen

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

At the bottom of the statement stuck on the front window of Clerys, it says, "unused gift vouchers will not be redeemed".

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There's no, "We're sorry that we are unable . . ." There's no, "We regret it is not possible . . ."

There's just: Yeah, we got that money, we've made the voucher useless, but you're not getting your money back - bugger off, now, loser. Or words to that effect.

The dominant forces in Irish society - speculative capital and the lawyers and accountants who are its handmaidens - are sorry for nothing; they don't regret anything. They take their dominance for granted. And why wouldn't they?

Politicians forced us to bail out bankers, builders and developers. People who wrecked the country, from their dominant position, retain that dominant position today.

Our politicians arrange the laws in line with the advice, requests and demands of the wealthy and their mouthpieces.

Why, then, are we surprised when something like the Clerys affair comes along?

The staff speak of their loyalty, of how they worked to get the store back in shape after the flood damage in 2013. They are aware that the entity known as Clerys is the sum of a lot of things - including their hard work.

The owners of concessions within the store - who paid Clerys to use the space - thought they were in partnership with a large, reliable institution.

The mistake all these people made was in seeing Clerys as a department store. Clerys hasn't been a department store for a long time. It's a development opportunity.

It - like us - is at the mercy of people with access to huge amounts of money.

The sellers and the buyers of Clerys represent speculative capital in full rampant display.

Clerys, it seems, was sold at 2.30am. It was sold on a Friday, when the company was allegedly due the following Monday to pay an estimated €2m to concession owners - money those people had earned.

The seller was an outfit called OCS Holdings. The buyer was Natrium. Lucky old Natrium now owns OCS Holdings. Which - conveniently - comprises two companies: OCS Properties and OCS Operations.

OCS Properties owns the Clerys building, and Natrium can hope to eventually make big bucks out of that.

Meanwhile, OCS Operations, which ran Clerys, is gone bust. It has nothing but debts.

And, wouldn't you know - it's OCS Operations that is flat broke, and owes money to the staff and the concession owners.

The potentially lucrative OCS Properties gets to keep all the money it makes. Being completely separate from OCS Operations, neither the staff nor the concession owners have any claim on it.

So, we had the staff wondering if they'll get their back wages and holiday pay, and anything above the minimum redundancy deal. Well, OCS Operations has no money, so let's quote Conor Power in the Irish Independent: "If there is no money left, the State will have to pick up the tab through the Insolvency Payments Scheme".

Sure, why not! Aren't we bailing out bankers and bondholders and builders galore? Why shouldn't we pay some bills for the speculative capitalists from the Clerys deal?

And the concession owners wondered if they'd get their €2m. Frankly, I'm not sure who has all that money.

The special liquidator is trying to track it down but he might well find that the following formula applies: Yeah, we got that money, but we don't have it anymore. Or words to that effect.

Now, there were lawyers all over this deal, so the sellers and the buyers and the liquidators have all acted wholly within the law.

And that's the significant point.

Modern Ireland, in its laws and institutions, is not designed in the interests of the Clerys workers. It's not designed in the interests of small businesses.

Modern Ireland is designed to work best for speculative capital.

Unlike workers, or small businesses, who are about making things, and providing services, speculative capital is all about making money, by whatever means necessary.

The law encourages them to split companies, to choose carefully the moment of liquidation.

Such laws didn't just happen. They were carefully put in place by a political class in thrall to people who speak in the steely tones of those who are used to getting their way.

There's a mighty lobbying system to ensure that such laws are drawn up by people fully aware of the needs of speculative capital.

It never occurred to the Clerys workers that they could be treated so brutally. It never occurred to the small business people that they could work hard and earn good money and then watch as that money evaporated.

Whatever you may think of it, all that has happened is entirely legal. This is Ireland functioning in the manner for which it is designed.

In recent years, labour has taken a beating. Capital pushed wages down, worsened conditions and politicians ensured labour regulation doesn't function. Entry-level jobs have, in many cases, been replaced by free labour schemes.

Labour is regarded as a lesser species, an unfortunate necessity that should be paid as little as possible, be infinitely malleable and be disposed of without fuss.

The unions have been weakened so much they end up begging for decency from those who can't spell the word.

Small businesses get lip service from politicians, but many have found that in the fight over upward-only rent reviews, the politicians commiserate but effectively side with the rent seekers.

Such people come in various forms - speculators, developers, hedge funds, vulture capitalists.

Our Government has made it clear where it stands in these matters. Last September, at the United Nations, it voted against Draft Resolution A/68/L.57/Rev, proposed by Bolivia. This sought to curtail the dangerous and destructive activities of vulture capitalism. Our Government formally took a stand in favour of vulture capital.

When a government reveals its ideology so clearly, we don't have a right to be surprised to find that its laws reflect its beliefs.

Last week, Joan Burton spoke of "social vandalism" and Enda Kenny said the Clerys deal was "grossly insensitive".

I think he meant "blatant". Fine Gael and Labour have been in government since 2011, they have taken certain stands, and now they wince when the beneficiaries of their policies are downright unashamed about looking after their own interests, whatever the cost to others.

Many in speculative capital act as though they consider themselves a higher species. They don't feel the need to pretend to give a damn about anyone else. But our politicians would prefer if they tacked on the odd, "We're sorry that we are unable . . ." and "We regret it is not possible . . ."

On the whole, I prefer it when blatant greed doesn't seek to hide its ruthlessness.

Sunday Independent

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