Former Thomas Cook cabin crew manager Rachel Murrell wanted desperately to be at last week’s demonstration in Parliament on Wednesday (October 2) — to stand with her colleagues and demand answers from the government after the iconic travel firm went bust two weeks ago.
“But living in Devon, not having any job, I just couldn’t justify spending the money on petrol and parking, or taking the train there,” she said.
In the days after losing her job, which she’d had for more than two decades, Rachel was beside herself.
“My emotions flip-flopped from being really angry to really shocked and upset. I felt literally sick — I couldn’t eat or sleep; I started having chest pains.”
It was then that Rachel had happened to pick up a Dick Whittington book from the library for her three-year-old daughter.
“We were just sitting there reading it, over and over again,” Rachel told UNITElive.
Inspired by the legendary character’s fabled walk to London, that’s when it came to her– “I’ll just walk to London and that’s that.”
What began as a spur-of-the-moment idea born from a children’s book soon turned into an inspiring reality — on Friday (October 4) Rachel completed her 200-mile, week-long journey, entirely on foot in her Thomas Cook uniform, to hand in a letter to Downing Street demanding answers from the government.
Setting off from Newton Abbott, just after her Job Seeker’s appointment on Friday, September 27, Rachel averaged 20 miles a day or more, spurred on by colleagues, family, friends and strangers alike.
“People have been absolutely lovely – they’ve offered me lifts, which I gratefully declined, takeaways, places to stay.”
But her epic journey was not without its challenges.
“The second day was definitely the hardest. I was walking in torrential downpour in my polyester dress. I’d rang ahead for a place to stay but there was no room at the inn so I had to walk an extra four miles to the closest pub. Four miles doesn’t seem like much but when you’re totally drenched and exhausted, in the middle of nowhere in the dark, and then your phone stops working — it was absolutely horrific. If it had been any colder, I would have been looking at hypothermia.”
On Friday (October 4) Rachel was greeted by her mother, brother-in-law, dozens of her colleagues and other Unite members as she made the final stretch to Downing Street where she attempted to hand in her letter to prime minister Boris Johnson.
Although turned away at the gates, Rachel’s defiant message rang loud and clear through social media — under the hashtag #walkingforanswers — as well as through news outlets across the UK.
In her letter, Rachel demanded an “in-depth, forensic investigation into the company’s demise” . She called for “a system be put in place to ensure companies ring-fence money in case of collapse”, and to ensure redundancy payments are fast-tracked “allowing those affected to have room to breathe, grieve for the loss of their career before hopefully moving on to a new position”.
Rachel also called for company directors to return their ill-gotten bonuses.
“I don’t understand how a company like Thomas Cook can go into liquidation and then managers and directors get these massive bonuses and workers are left with nothing,” she told UniteLive. “Bonuses should be given back. If people stand up and fight for what’s right and bosses were forced to do what’s ethical, then the world would be a better place. I wanted to keep hammering that message home by walking 200 miles and to get it out to as many people as possible I could.”
What next for Rachel, then?
Like many of her colleagues, she’ll have to contend with finding a new work after spending her entire working life with one employer in a job that she loved.
“I’ve never even written a CV,” she said. “But if there’s one thing this walk has given me is the confidence to know I can do anything if I set my mind to it.”
It’s also reconnected her with what she believes really matters in life.
“Walking 200 miles gives you a lot of time to think about things. It’s made me immensely grateful to all my wonderful colleagues, my family, my daughter, but most of all it’s made me grateful to my incredible husband George. He’s an amazing father and partner and I simply couldn’t have done this without him.”
Unite national officer Oliver Richardson hailed Rachel’s efforts.
“Unite is immensely proud of Rachel and all of our Thomas Cook members who have shown such dignity and determination in the face of their shoddy treatment,” he said. “Thomas Cook workers have every right to be angry. The sudden collapse has left many workers desperate and with no income.
“Unite is determined to get these workers the wages they’re owed, and has called on the business secretary Andrea Leadsom to restore a modicum of justice to this scandal and ensure workers are paid,” he added. “We are also urging banks, mortgage lenders and landlords to give these workers the breathing space they need to get back on their feet.
“Unite stands shoulder to shoulder with the workers’ calls for the directors to hand back their bonuses and will put pressure on this government to bring in legislation to ensure that a company collapse of this kind is never again allowed to happen.”
- Pics by Mark Thomas