Retail NZ calls for 'kindness' as Jacinda Ardern slams Warehouse Group over proposed layoffs

Retail NZ is calling for "kindness" after Jacinda Ardern laid into the Warehouse Group over the consumer giant's plans to layoff more than 1000 jobs in a restructure.

The Prime Minister said on Tuesday she was "angry" at the proposed job losses, and later told reporters in Tauranga the retail chain should have been more up front about its restructure.

"They've indicated this isn't just down to COVID-19 - they had other plans. I think they need to speak frankly about that. New Zealanders are pulling together at this time to support one another and my hope is that we see that from all parts of society and business."

The Warehouse Group received more than $50 million from the Government's wage subsidy scheme for more than 8500 employees. Ardern said the point of it was to help keep workers employed through the COVID-19 crisis.

"Ultimately, that was to try and keep those employees in work; and look, I do acknowledge that there are businesses that are doing it tough and where the horizon is looking very difficult for them," Ardern said.

"But I think what you've seen from Government is a willingness to use our balance sheet to try and support them... All we ask is for businesses to do as much as they can to do the same."

The Warehouse Group has confirmed a closure in Birkenhead as well as Noel Leeming stores in Papanui and at The Palms in Christchurch. Further stores may close in Tokoroa, Whangaparaoa, Dunedin and Te Awamutu.

"I'm angry, if I'm speaking frankly," Ardern told Morning Report. "At the moment I'm getting hundreds of letters from small-business owners who are giving up everything to try and keep their staff on."

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said the Government has been advised "for months" that larger retail chains are not immune from the impacts of the COVID-19 and that job losses have been forecasted for the sector.

"The Prime Minister should not be angry that businesses are acting to reduce costs and create sustainable futures," he said. "Retailers greatly appreciate the support that the Government has provided to the retail sector in recent months - but the margins in retail are wafer-thin. 

"New Zealand businesses, both large and small, are doing their best to manage the consequences of the lockdowns, and they are needing to make very tough decisions."

He said there is a misconception that larger businesses are able to incur big losses.

"Nobody in retail wants to make people redundant or close stores, but no matter the size of a business, it needs to make operational decisions to drive efficiency and productivity in order to survive."

National's deputy leader Nikki Kaye said the Prime Minister "getting angry at the Warehouse is not going to help pay the bills or ensure people get into work", and said businesses need to have "confidence and certainty" about the economy.

"We need a Prime Minister that will provide a clear plan to save businesses and create jobs and the criticism is not helpful," she told reporters. 

Ardern said she understands a lot of businesses "are doing it tough" but the Government is "doing everything it can to help support them to keep workers on and we're very keen to see the same out in the workforce".

She said that's the "kind of attitude that we want in New Zealand right now".

Job numbers plummeted by 37,500 in April as the economic impact of COVID-19 crippled businesses in New Zealand, and Treasury has forecast unemployment to reach 9.8 percent in September.