Debenhams workers in Ireland, some with more than 40 years’ service, have vowed to continue fighting for fair redundancy following the appointment of provisional liquidators to the retail giant.
The staff, who are in line for statutory redundancy only, accused the company of using the Covid-19 crisis as a cover to bail out of Ireland and of hoping the travel restrictions would silence staff.
And as the first victims of a big retail casualty during the pandemic, they warned other retail workers that they may face a similar battle. They spoke out as they staged protests outside the UK retail company’s Irish outlets in Blanchardstown, Tallaght and Blackrock in Dublin and at its Mahon Point and flagship St Patrick’s St stores in Cork yesterday to send a clear message to the company bosses and liquidators that they are “not going to take this lying down”.
Shop steward at the St Patrick’s St outlet, Valerie Conlon, said she and her colleagues didn’t want to stage a protest during a public health crisis but felt they had no option. They all observed physical distancing guidelines, and workers who could not join them protested at home and posted images on social media.
Ms Conlon, who has 24 years’ service with the company said: “We want to show our employer that we are not going to lie down, that we are not just numbers on a sheet, that we are employees and that we count, and that we are going to fight.”
Kieran Wallace and Andrew O’Leary of KPMG, were appointed liquidators of Debenhams Retail Ireland last week after Debenhams Retail in Britain moved to appoint an administrator just before the Easter weekend, and indicated that it was withdrawing support from its loss-making Irish operation which manages 11 stores and directly employs almost 1,000 people. A further 500 people worked in concessions within the stores.
Debenhams has said the stores are not expected to reopen.
The two Cork stores account for almost 700 of the lost jobs: 300 Debenhams staff and 160 concessions staff in the St Patrick’s St outlet, and 150 direct and 60 concessions staff in Mahon Point.
Lord Mayor of Cork John Sheehan, visited the St Patrick’s St protest to lend his support.
Solidarity TD, Mick Barry, also backed the workers and criticised Debenhams for “deliberately shutting up shop during a pandemic”.
“Debenhams must not be allowed to simply shut the shops, flee the country, dump the workers on the dole and force the taxpayer to foot the bill. Nor should the Government be allowed to stand idly by and declare that it’s not their problem,” he said.
Mandate represents many of the workers, and its general secretary, John Douglas, described the liquidation process as “cynical, opportunistic and a hammer blow for workers”.
“This doesn’t appear to be a normal ‘compulsory’ liquidation. If, as we suspect, it has been entered into freely by the directors of the company, there should have been discussions with their workers who built this company and have given them loyal service for decades,” he said.
“We want to see what the finances of the company are, establish whether there is a credible way any of the Irish Debenhams stores could be saved and protect jobs where possible.
Siptu organiser, Myles Worth, said staff have not been provided with adequate information concerning the entire liquidation process and have not been provided with any redundancy package.
“This is completely unacceptable treatment of this loyal workforce, particularly during this period of great uncertainty,” he said.
The liquidators are expected to update staff over the coming days on the process. Debenhams did not respond to requests for comment.