As the industry rebuilds following Thomas Cook’s collapse, TTG hears the challenges faced by staff hardest hit following the iconic brand’s demise and asks them what lessons can be learned...
On Monday 23 September, Thomas Cook collapsed. That was the week Charlie Wardle used a food bank for the first time.
It was a position the 29-year-old single mother had never imagined being in.
Just days before, and like thousands of her Cook colleagues, Wardle was selling holidays, at her branch in Chorlton, Manchester – unaware of the nightmare about to unfold.
Further north, Carolyn Russell arrived at Glasgow airport in the early hours of Monday morning as her beloved carrier’s planes touched down for the final time. She had spent the last 16 years flying for Thomas Cook Airlines as cabin crew.
Also a single parent, a recent home move had left Russell with “about £100” in her bank account and no savings to fall back on.
The pair’s stories are symptomatic of Cook’s collapse, which saw an estimated 9,000 UK employees – from retail agents and overseas reps to head office staff and airline crew – lose their jobs.
The news of Cook’s collapse shook the entire industry, but for its employees, it was heartbreaking. Nearly four months later, the sector might have started to move on as the new year brings a fresh wave of challenges, but for many of Cook’s staff the devastating impact of the travel giant’s failure remains all too real.
So how have those affected coped? What has been done to help them? And, crucially, how can a similar situation be avoided in future?
“It was just so awful,” says Wardle, recalling the day of Cook’s demise.
“I had worked so hard and done so much overtime ready for Christmas. When everything happened, it was a kick in the teeth; it was horrendous – it felt like we didn’t have a Christmas.”
“I was in dire straits,” Russell adds. “The job I had always wanted to do was over, it was so painful to handle. I tried to make Christmas special for my boy but I couldn’t afford to buy any presents for my mum.”
Few in travel have witnessed the human cost of Cook’s demise more than the team at Abta LifeLine, which, as of 20 December, had helped more than 1,200 ex-staff and handed out £140,000 worth of food vouchers.
The industry charity has also provided “emergency support” including rent payments, groceries and utility bills to those impacted by a situation described by director Trudie Clements as “unprecedented”.
Both Wardle and Russell received help from LifeLine.
“I don’t know what I would have done without them – they paid my rent in December and January and my son’s after-school club bills,” says Russell.
“They sent me £120 in food vouchers each month and vouchers for Christmas food – it restored my faith in humanity. I cried when it arrived,” Wardle recalls.
After an initial flood of claims from ex-employees following Cook’s collapse, applications to LifeLine continued to come in, with 20 enquiries received in the first week of January alone, (in 2019, it received eight for
the whole month).
The main source of misery, according to Wardle and Russell, has come from struggles with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to receive the correct state benefits.
The government department has been widely lambasted by ex-Cook employees for its handling of the fallout – experiences which echo those of Wardle and Russell.
Both recall vital benefits being reduced and even “switched off” as paltry redundancy money trickled in from liquidators at unscheduled times.
“The DWP were treating redundancy money as an actual wage and then cancelling any benefits I was due,” Wardle remembers angrily.
“Then, when I did receive money from Cook, I was emergency taxed on it and had to wait weeks to get it back.”
Russell says she was waiting for £1,033 from the DWP in October, yet ended up receiving just £141.
“Universal Credit is a shambles of a system – having to constantly battle to get what you’re entitled to, and when you go to a job centre you’re made to feel like a criminal. It’s degrading.
“I was relying on friends and family – it was so embarrassing. It was a struggle every day, and I just had to keep going for my son’s sake.”
For fellow cabin crew Martin Browne, branch leader for the Unite union within Thomas Cook Airlines, their stories strike a familiar chord.
Having worked for Cook for 21 years, Browne lost his job in September along with his wife, who also flew for Thomas Cook Airlines. He spent his time post-collapse helping union members get back on their feet.
“I’ve got a family with two kids, and I was told to apply for Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance. My redundancy money came in three days before Universal Credit and they just shut the door and told me I wasn’t entitled to it,” he says.
“If I didn’t have good friends, who have helped massively, I would’ve been in a lot of trouble. There are still loads of people who are really struggling.”
In response, a DWP spokesperson told TTG its support was “personalised” and would “vary, reflecting people’s skills, circumstances and work history”.
“We are sorry if people have experienced delayed payments and urge them to stay in contact with their job centre so we can urgently fix their claims,” the spokesperson added.
As a result of her struggle, Wardle encountered mental health issues, and ended up seeking medical help for recurring nightmares.
“I had been working in the store on the Saturday before the collapse and the abuse from people, scared about losing their holiday, was horrible. I’m still waking up at night thinking about people whose weddings, honeymoons and special trips I had booked.
“It’s hard not to feel guilty when management must have known things were difficult and told us to just keep booking.”
Mental health support for Cook staff will be a focus this year for LifeLine, Clements says. “To lose your job for such a big company in a situation like this is very difficult. For many staff, this was their only job in travel. We want to offer the right support going forward.”
Another key aim for LifeLine is to replenish the funds raised in 2019, when around £250,000 was raised for its Thomas Cook appeal. Clements predicts the charity will need to find “at least the same” amount this year as it deals with more complex issues.
Looking to the future, Wardle, Russell and Browne have each recently started new roles outside of travel, but their anger – regarding both the nature of Cook’s demise as well as the government’s handling of the situation – is still palpable.
The trio acknowledge the timing was tough, occurring during parliament’s Brexit impasse, but they insist Westminster’s perceived lack of action was “unforgivable”.
“Nobody seemed to care,” says Browne. “There was apathy from Grant Shapps [transport secretary], and Andrea Leadsom [secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy] didn’t want to know.”
Russell believes more rigorous regulation around company finances and a shake-up of the benefits systems are urgently needed.
“Companies can’t be allowed to get into the situation that Cook did. Emergency benefits must be put in place, and on a bigger scale, to deal with collapses like this.”
Browne is also concerned the same mistakes are not repeated on the aviation side.
“Why couldn’t Thomas Cook’s airline have gone into administration and not just liquidation?” he questions. “Our airline was profitable, it could have continued.” His words are timely, speaking to TTG in the week low-cost carrier Flybe was granted a government-backed rescue deal.
For Wardle, Russell and Browne – and thousands of others – the fallout from Cook is far from over. Their hope is that their stories are heard and, crucially, listened to – by both the government and the travel industry. For Russell, the challenge is simple: “Lessons must be learnt”.