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Debenhams workers striking outside the Henry Street store in Dublin last July. Leah Farrell/
Debenhams Dispute

'A historical legacy': Debenhams workers continue strike one year on from store closures

The workers are still fighting for a fair redundancy package.

WORKERS WHO WERE made redundant from 11 Debenhams stores around Ireland are still protesting their treatment a full year since the company announced its closure.

On 9 April last year, Debenhams told staff that the company was going into liquidation and would not be reopening its Irish outlets.

Workers have been protesting for a fair redundancy package since the closure, with an official strike action launched nationally on 27 May.

The strike has focused on preventing stock and company assets being removed from closed stores while raising attention to the workers’ calls for four weeks of redundancy settlement per year of service.

Mandate National Coordinator Brian Forbes has said the year-long dispute will “leave a historical legacy”.

“It shows that you have to struggle to achieve any meaningful change in this country,” Forbes said.

“These workers should not have had to go on strike for a single day. They had an agreement, their employer was allowed walk away from that agreement, which was wrong, but the liquidator and the government had an obligation to step in, and they didn’t,” he said.

“I want to applaud the workers for their tenacity and for their commitment to the principle of justice. Since they began this strike they’ve been clear that not only are they doing this for themselves, they are doing it so that no other worker has to go through the same trauma they had to endure.”

Almost 1,000 workers across 11 stores balloted for industrial action last year after around 2,000 – 1,400 directly employed staff, 500 concession staff and 300 cosmetic staff – lost their jobs.

The workers want to see the recommendations of a 2016 report on workers’ rights implemented.

The report, which was published by Kevin Duffy and Nessa Cahill, centred on employment rights where companies separate assets from their operations by moving those assets into a separate legal entity.

The report’s recommendations have never been enacted.

Shop steward for the Tralee store Geraldine O’Regan said strikers are “once again calling on the government to do the right thing and implement Duffy/Cahill immediately”.

“When this dispute started, we had no expectation that we would be here one full year later. I am proud of the stance we’ve took and how we have highlighted the unfairness of the current legislation that’s supposed to protect workers.”

Similarly, Galway shop steward Karen Shaughnessy said it is “time for all workers in retail and trade unions across Ireland to stand up and support the strike and to fight for the implementation of the Duffy/Cahill report so that workers no longer have to go through these disputes”.

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said it would “benefit all workers if promised legislation to implement the Duffy/Cahill report is implemented”.

“If implemented [the report] would have given some protection to the Debenhams workers and others, such as Arcadia workers, who have enhanced redundancy agreements,” Smith said.

“Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have effectively been in government since then and did nothing to implement legislation to facilitate the implementation of the Duffy Cahill Report,” she said. 

In November, author of the report Kevin Duffy told the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Employment that he would not comment on the Debenhams dispute, but that if the liquidation case was similar to those that were considered in the report, then it would be of benefit to the workers.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggested that the report did not apply to the Debenhams workers, which was refuted by Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Mick Barry who said his comment was “well wide of the mark”.

Barry is now moving a bill to the Dáil on protections for employee rights during liquidations.

The bill would seek to make unpaid collective redundancy payments into a debt and add an article to the Companies Act to prioritise payment to workers during liquidations.

On the anniversary of the store announcing its liquidation, Smith said today that the workers have “fought a dignified campaign for justice” despite the pandemic and have been “failed at every opportunity by the current government”.

“Given the fantastic fight these workers have put up a lasting legacy will be to ensure that legislation is put in place to ensure workers laid off in the future due to liquidations are not treated like the Debenhams workers,” she said.

“We urgently need to reorder the priority of creditors in a liquidation so that workers are at the top of the queue. We need a fund, which employers should fund, that would pay the entitlements of laid off workers where there are no assets to do so.”

The workers are holding an anniversary rally over Facebook live this evening at 7pm to mark a year since they were made redundant.

Speakers at the rally are to include representatives from the workers, ex-Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid striker Karen Gearon and Vita Cortex striker Jim Power, as well as TDs Mick Barry, Bríd Smith and Louise O’Reilly and Senator Frances Black.

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