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debenhams picket

'I don't know how they stood there for 406 days. I really don't'

A new documentary explores what the Debenhams workers experienced while on their picket, in their own words.

IN EARLY APRIL 2020, Ireland was in lockdown. It was a strange time – almost every business had to shut its doors, people were concerned about their health and the spread of Covid-19, and we were mere weeks into what we didn’t realise would be a long-term pandemic.

On 9 April 2020, 11 Debenhams stores nationwide shut their doors. The workers – many of whom worked there for decades – were made redundant. In total, almost 2,000 jobs were lost across the country. The day before, Debenhams had gone into administration in the UK, with 142 stores closed and 22,000 staff placed on furlough.

For those staff, the closure was a massive shock. A meeting between the liquidator and the trade union Mandate was sought. The staff presumed they would receive their redundancy packages.

But nothing went as they anticipated, and staff ended up picketing for 406 days outside the stores in an attempt to prevent stock from being sold on, and to make sure they were not left without any form of payment.

406 Days

Now a documentary, due to premiere at the Dublin International Film Festival (DIFF), tells the story of the Debenhams strike in the workers’ words. 406 Days, directed by Joe Lee and produced by Fergus Dowd, will be the closing gala film at DIFF.

Dowd is the author of a book about the strike, and initially contacted Lee to ask if he would be interested in working on a film about what happened.

“‘I really want to be involved with this’,” Lee recalled thinking. “Because the book had that immediacy and was very much written from the picket line point of view. So that was a crucial decision in terms of how we approached and made the film. And how we’d work together is that we built on Fergus’s trust that he had built up with the various picket lines.”

Tallaght 1 Pickrt Line

Raw in people’s minds

They started shooting in March 2022, so the film was a very quick process compared to Lee’s previous work. There was a real sense of immediacy about it, Lee told The Journal. “It was still raw in the minds of the people that were involved,” added Dowd.

Filming in 2022 also meant that they were able to get in touch with Roches Stores, which owned the former Debenhams buildings, and ask could they access them. They ended up filming some of the former staff in the buildings, as well as some striking drone shots of the empty stores.

“We could have done [interviews] with people down in the studio, but to actually bring them back in – I think it really does nearly make the film,” said Dowd.

Though what happened was an “incredible disappointment” to the workers, they were “so positive and fantastic to work with”, said Lee, who filmed in Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Tralee and Limerick. “There was really, really good communication between myself, Fergus and the women all the time.”

Dublin Henry St 6 Picket Line

The strike was an official union strike, but Dowd said the women “really drove the strike themselves”. “This whole strike, specifically at the start, was driven by WhatsApp, social media, because they couldn’t get any press, because everything was COVID.”

The pickets grew organically, but none of the participants were to know how long they would end up standing outside the loading bays in the rain and sunshine. At one point, towards the end, some staff occupied the buildings, which is detailed in the documentary. The story is told by the workers in their own words, emphasising their experience of what happened, and what a loss the closures represented.

“Most of the people that we spoke to had worked in both Roches and Debenhams for, you know, two decades, three decades – for decades,” said Dowd. Many were struck by the ‘generic’ email they got telling them their jobs were gone. 

From speaking to them, they’re just such a determined bunch. We filmed on the loading bay in Cork for three hours and were absolutely frozen just filming. That it was March and I don’t know how they stood there for 406 days. I really don’t.

Strong message

In the documentary, several women mention how they believe if they were men they wouldn’t have been treated the way they were. “The women were treated appallingly,” said Lee. “They were treated like they didn’t understand industrial relations. They were treated like they didn’t understand what a liquidation was, and it was a very, very patronising sort of approach.”

“I think it’s a really strong message and one of my hopes is that does resonate with people,” he added of this aspect of the film. 

“They maybe didn’t realise the standard of person they were dealing with and the experience these women had, the shop stewards – they very strong characters,” added Dowd.

Dublin Henry St 1 Picket Line

The director said that one of the things that’s really important to both he and Dowd is how the dispute was very much a national one. They plan on holding screenings in the locations where there were pickets. 

Workers’ rights

As well as raising awareness about what the Debenhams staff experienced, the pickets also put a spotlight on the 2016 Duffy-Cahill report on workers’ rights in insolvencies, which was undertaken in the wake of the closure of Clerys. The recommendations have not been implemented to date, which the workers drew attention to during the picketing. Such a visible form of industrial action helped to show that workers can be left with little choice but to picket when their employers close up shop. 

After 406 Days, on 20 May 2021, the Debenhams industrial action came to an end when a majority of workers voted in favour of accepting a Government plan of a €3 million training, upskilling and business start-up fund. It wasn’t what they had initially wanted, but it brought to an end the long days and nights of picketing.

That day, Gerry Light, Mandate General Secretary, paid tribute to the campaigners, saying:

“Today’s ballot outcome is testament to the strong will and resilience of our striking members who refused to accept defeat in the face of adversity.  

“We acknowledge this is not a perfect deal as it falls short of our members original demands, however, it represents the best achievable negotiated settlement under very difficult circumstances.”

For the workers, the focus became getting the government to introduce legislation that would ensure future workers didn’t have to go through what they did. 

But as 406 Days shows, the fight for workers’ rights is far from over.

406 Days will be shown on 4 March at The Light House Cinema in Smithfield. For more information on DIFF, visit the festival website. 

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