Picketing through the pandemic

Ex-Debenhams workers mark over 300 days on strike.

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Back in April 2020, almost 1,000 Debenhams workers in the Republic of Ireland learned that they had lost their jobs.

The High Court had appointed provisional liquidators to the company’s Irish operation, after  the company claimed that it was insolvent and could not pay its debts. 

The workers received this shocking news through a generic email. Long-serving, loyal staff with up to 43 years of service to the company, were to be made redundant at a moment’s notice.

Despite the fact that these workers were unionised and that their trade union, Mandate, had an agreed redundancy package in place with the employer, the workers were told that they would not receive this package. KPMG liquidators had taken control and workers were told they would have to resort to statutory redundancy. This is set at two weeks per year of service, capped at €600 per week.

Through Mandate, the workers decided to fight back. It followed that official pickets were mounted on eleven stores including four in Dublin – at Henry Street, Blackrock, Blanchardstown and Tallaght, as well as Galway, Tralee, Newbridge, Limerick, Waterford and two stores in Cork – Mahon Point and Patrick Street. 

These protests continued amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in the face of recurring lockdowns, and public health restrictions. Earlier this month, (3rd February 2021) the workers marked 300 days on strike.

The workers are calling on the government to make a €3 million training fund – established for the workers – available as a cash payment. They are also calling for full implementation of the Duffy-Cahill report recommendations, to ensure that workers’ employment rights are vindicated in cases where companies enter liquidation.

Speaking on the matter, Michelle Gavin, Waterford-based shop steward said:

“It has only recently come to our attention that the government allowed bank workers in the IBRC (formerly Anglo Irish Bank & Irish Nationwide) to avail of a cash payment fund similar to what we have requested, yet they won’t allow us the same entitlement. Is it because we’re retail workers and not bankers that we don’t deserve the same treatment?”

Valerie Conlon, shop steward from the Patrick Street store in Cork commented:

“We’ve spent 300 days in hail, rain and snow during a pandemic, and all because the Government refused to legislate to protect workers in redundancy situations back in 2016. The very least he could do is afford us the courtesy of a response”

Ms. Conlon was referring to the publication of the Duffy-Cahill report in January 2016, in the wake of the closure of Clerys. This report made a number of recommendations in relation to employment rights and company law implications, where companies separate assets from operations into a separate legal entity. 

Among these recommendations was an obligation for all employers – including a liquidator who takes over an insolvent company – to hold a 30-day consultation period prior to redundancies taking effect. Options such as redeployment retraining or financial compensation would be considered during this interim period, in order to maximise the possibility of mitigating the effects of redundancy. 

Over four years later, however, these recommendations have never been implemented.

General Secretary of Mandate, Gerry Light, attributes this failure of implementation to a lack of political will.

“The ex-Debenhams workers only have two demands”, Mr. Light said.

“Firstly, they want the €3m fund established for training to be made available as a cash payment, and secondly, they want legislation implemented to prevent this from happening to any workers in the future.”

He added, “These workers have paid their dues. They’ve paid their taxes for up to 40 years. The least the Taoiseach and the rest of the Government could do is show their appreciation and respect by making a genuine effort to resolve this dispute.”

LookLeft understands that Mandate has written to the Taoiseach on behalf of the ex-Debenhams workers on 13th January and again on the 25th January. However, the trade union has not received a response to either correspondence.

As pickets and protests by the workers continue, Mr. Light concluded:

“I want to commend the workers for their courage and determination in both seeking a resolution for themselves and their families, but also for their solid commitment to ensuring that no other workers have to go through this again” 

“The entire trade union movement is deeply proud of their 300 day action and we are firmly behind them.”

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