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Uncertainties raised over protections for striking Debenhams workers

Former Labour court chair Kevin Duffy and barrister Nessa Cahill appeared before the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Employment.

THE AUTHORS OF a workers’ rights report said they could not confirm whether staff at the centre of the Debenhams dispute would be protected by their recommendations.

Debenhams workers have been seeking for the report’s recommendations, which was published in 2016, to be enacted.

Kevin Duffy and Nessa Cahill, authors of the Duffy-Cahill report, appeared before the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Employment.

The pair produced a report in March 2016 which centred on employment rights, where companies separate assets from operations by moving assets into a separate legal entity.

The recommendations, however, have never been implemented.

Mr Duffy, a former Labour Court chairman, was asked about the Debenhams dispute, but he said he would not get into the controversy as he was not aware of the facts.

Debenhams staff have been protesting since April in a dispute with the firm over redundancy terms after 1,000 workers lost their jobs when the chain went into liquidation.

Workers have been calling for enhanced redundancy payments of four weeks’ pay per year of service instead of the statutory two weeks.

The workers want the recommendations of the 2016 report implemented as they believe it would strengthen their rights.

While Mr Duffy would not be drawn into commenting on the dispute, he said that if the facts of a liquidation case was similar to those that they contemplated in the report, then it would be of benefit to the workers.

Mr Duffy said: “While the Terms of Reference note that there may be sound business reasons for such actions, the problem identified is that, if the operating entity subsequently becomes insolvent and is placed into liquidation, the separation of assets from operations may have adverse consequences for employees of the operations entity.”

 

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He said this is regardless of the priority to which workers are entitled under the Companies Act 2014.

Mr Duffy added: “The fundamental proposal was that in situations where the employees are deprived of an opportunity to negotiate enhanced redundancy terms, that they have a legitimate expectation to bring a claim under the Protection of Employment Act.

“What we proposed was that where there is a contractual or quasi-contractual entitlement, that could be a basis for an award for a contravention of the Protection of Employment Act.”

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Mick Barry also rejected a claim by Tanaiste Leo Varadkar that the report does not apply to the Debenhams workers.

Mr Barry said: “It would seem that on the basis of the answers given, that the comment of the Tanaiste that the Duffy-Cahill report does not apply in the instance of the Debenhams dispute is well wide of the mark.”

“The comment of the Tanaiste that the Duffy-Cahill report does not apply in the instance of the Debenhams dispute is well wide off the mark.”

Ms Cahill, a barrister specialising in administrative law, told the committee that some provisions in law that deals with the ability to pool assets are not being used.

“It could be a group of companies and one of them goes into liquidation and there is a basis to believe that another related company was involved in the management of the liquated company – you should be able to look to that other company to pay the debts of the insolvent company,” she explained.

“We note that provision doesn’t seem to have ever been invoked. It’s quite a novel prevision.

“It’s one we thought could be potentially useful in this situation – so that’s what we mean about saying some of the provisions are useful, but are in more need of being used.”

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