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Taoiseach says Debenhams has treated its Irish workers 'very badly'

Some 1,500 Debenhams workers in Ireland have lost their jobs.

Workers protesting outside Debenhams.
Workers protesting outside Debenhams.
Image: RollingNews.ie

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN said today that Debenhams has treated its Irish workers “very badly”.

Some 1,500 Debenhams workers in Ireland lost their jobs on the 9 April after management informed them that 11 of their stores in Ireland “are not expected to reopen” as the company was filing for liquidation.

The company said it was liquidating all operations in the Republic of Ireland due to the financial impact of Covid-19.

Speaking in the Dáil today, Martin said Debenhams should “do the right thing” and pay the previously agreed level of redundancy.

He said the State will do what it can but Debenhams is a private business but said it was not straightforward for a government to intervene in a liquidation process.

“There is a commitment in the programme for government to legislate for the separation of property from trading entities.”

“I think it is important to note that Debenhams workers have gone through a traumatic situation and it is not fair to raise unrealistic expectations and blame everyone else when it is the company that is fundamentally at fault here in terms of the behaviour towards its workers.”

“It was not the outgoing Government’s fault nor is it this Government’s fault but what this Government can do is deal with the legislation around these issues,” he said.

The issue was raised with the Taoiseach by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who said the Debenhams situation was very similar to the Clerys closure a number of years ago.

She said the Clerys situation was “a blueprint” to what Debenhams is doing now.

McDonald said politicians said at the time of the Clerys closure, that such a situation could never happen again. But now it has, she said.

Workers have been left “high and dry”, she said, adding that workers want to be treated fairly. Workers want statutory redundancy of two weeks for every year worked with the retailer.

This is the second day the matter has been raised with the Taoiseach in the Dáil. Yesterday, Martin said:

“Debenhams has treated the workers very poorly and in a shabby way and it is wrong to do so. The Deputy is correct that the company has availed of the legal framework within the Companies Act in regard to solvencies, winding-up and so on, to leave the workers extremely short.

“The State will have to do its bit to provide, within the legal framework, what it can in terms of statutory redundancy, but it is unacceptable. In my view, the legislation will have to be re-examined in terms of the devices that companies may use, separating out assets from trading income in particular, to deprive workers of their just entitlements in terms of redundancy.

“This will not be an easy task because reform of any legislation can have unintended consequences. This issue is referenced in the programme for Government. It is an area on which work will commence in terms of examining the overall company law situation with a view to reducing the capacity of companies to deny workers their entitlements in terms of redundancy and workers’ rights generally when a company is winding up.

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“The sense is that Covid-19 was used as a basis for closing the company and leaving 1,500 people out of work.”

The Taoiseach told the Dáil today that the government would do everything it can to help the workers.

During Leaders’ Questions, Sinn Fein TD Eoin Ó Broin also called on the Taoiseach to give clarity to renters about evictions.

A moratorium on evictions is due to expire at the end of the month and he asked if it would be extended.

He told the Dail: “The current emergency ban on notice-to-quits, evictions and rent increases is due to expire in 11 days’ time. There are thousands of renters who are very uncertain about what the future holds.”

McDonald said the Taoiseach’s response yesterday was “lacklustre”, stating that action needed to be taken now to help the workers.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said the government is giving the issue consideration: “We have to take legal advice in relation to it – research has taken place into the rent arrears issue and that will inform our response in terms of people in difficulty with that situation.”

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