Protesting Debenhams workers warn of 'jobs carnage' in retail sector

Debenhams workers have warned of "jobs carnage" in the retail sector and have urged the government to step in to save their jobs.
Protesting Debenhams workers warn of 'jobs carnage' in retail sector
Valerie Conlon and former staff workers at Debenhams protest outside the store on Maylor Street, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

Debenhams workers have warned of "jobs carnage" in the retail sector and have urged the government to step in to save their jobs.

They spoke out during a day of action today mounted as part of their ongoing campaign for a fair redundancy.

It included a second round of protests at 10 Debenhams stores facing full-time closure, and the country's first industrial relations virtual rally held online and attended by almost 400 people.

It comes ahead of a liquidation hearing tomorrow when the provisional liquidators of Debenhams Retail Ireland who were appointed just over two week ago are expected to be appointed full-time liquidators.

The liquidation process was triggered just before the Easter weekend when Debenhams Retail in the UK moved to appoint an administrator 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 work in concessions within the stores.

It is understood that following an initial assessment of the Irish operation's books, there is around €4m in the kitty and debts of up to €20m.

The company's Irish bosses have told workers that the Irish stores are unlikely to reopen.

The workers have been told they will only receive their statutory entitlements and have received little or no detail in recent weeks about their employment status pending the liquidation hearing.

Dozens of the workers observed physical distancing during today's protests outside Debenhams stores in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Newbridge.

In Cork, gardaí noted the names and address of the protestors but did not direct them to disperse.

During an online e-rally later, organised by Mandate and Uplift, the workers warned of potential "jobs carnage" in the retail sector if other companies close up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shop stewards, Jane Crowe and Valerie Conlon, said the Debenhams closure in Ireland has put 2,000 jobs on the line.

"That’s thousands of people and families reliant on our wages. The government would be better off stepping in now, to invest to keep people employed, rather than having to pay for thousands more people going onto social welfare," they said.

We believe many of the stores are profitable, as well as the online business. The government is putting billions in to keep people employed because of Covid-19. There are also EU funds available to prevent redundancies.

"We are asking all our political representatives to ask the government to take a stake here and invest to keep the company trading.”

Mandate General Secretary, John Douglas, said public support for the Debenhams workers has been phenomenal.

"Already 20,000 people have signed a petition in support of the workers," he said.

“We believe the company sought to enter the liquidation process during the Covid-19 crisis because it prevented the workers from being able to negotiate effectively.

"They couldn’t attend meetings or engage in normal industrial relations activities so we have to come up with new and innovative ways of making our voices heard.”

Some 700 people worked in Debenhams' two Cork stores.

Lawrence Owens, the chief executive of the Cork Business Association (CBA), said all staff must be treated with dignity, fairness and respect.

He called on the British parent company to plough money into fair and decent redundancy payments for its Irish staff.

And he called on City Hall to do what it can to ensure a potential tenant is found quickly for the landmark building on St Patrick's St.

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