'We’re still on strike' - Former Debenhams staff overwhelmingly reject Government deal

'We’re still on strike' - Former Debenhams staff overwhelmingly reject Government deal

Former workers on picket line duty outside the Debenhams Store on Patrick Street, Cork. File Picture: Dan Linehan

Former Debenhams workers have voted down by a 91% majority a government deal which offered them a €3m training fund.

The landslide defeat of the “insulting” deal which offered workers no additional redundancy pay beyond their statutory entitlement, was announced this  afternoon.

They have called for the €3m to be given as top-up redundancy pay instead. This, they said, would end the dispute which has raged since April when approximately 1,000 employees lost their jobs after Debenhams went into liquidation and failed to pay staff their previously agreed redundancy packages.

Former workers said that the €3m training fund was of little benefit as they were already entitled to State-funded training courses and many were nearing retirement. 

Valerie Conlon, Mandate union shop steward with the shuttered Patrick Street store in Cork, was back on the picket line today as the 'ceasefire' ended when the vote came in.

She said:

The pickets are staying. We’re still on strike.

"Mandate will be writing to Micheál Martin to tell him what has happened today and where we stand.

“If the Government are willing to change the €3m training fund into cash then this could be finished.

“They keep saying they didn’t want to set a precedent. But if they could bring up €3m to pay people to do courses, why not give us the money?

“We’re also asking for the Cahill Duffy Bill to be implemented as soon as possible to help other workers coming down the road."

Ms Conlon said she is “very concerned” that liquidators KPMG may try to remove stock in the coming days and weeks, despite Level 5 restrictions.

“We literally do not know what they’re going to do.

"We’re going to find it harder to get people at the pickets as the Covid numbers are so high. I can totally understand that, I’m nervous myself, we all have to be very, very careful. But we still have people willing to do it so we’ll carry on as long as we can."

The rejected deal had been proposed through the Chairman of the Labour Court, Kevin Foley, who was commissioned by Government to mediate the long-running dispute.

But some 430 of approximately 1,000 former workers voted, with 393 rejecting the proposals, Mandate confirmed.

Solidarity TD Mick Barry, who has been campaigning on this issue said: “This is a really striking and overwhelming rejection of the offer made by the Taoiseach’s mediator. 

"It is a clear signal that the Government must now go back to the drawing board and come up with an improved offer to resolve this long-running dispute. 

"For a start, the €3m which was to be put aside for an upskilling fund should now be made part of a new redundancy package which is fairer and more just than the one just rejected.” 

Sinn Féin TD Thomas Gould, has said the vote by ex-Debenhams workers shows that they will only accept a fair redundancy package.

“The proposal document which stated that the Government would establish a €3 million training, upskilling, and business start-up fund was given fair consideration by the workers, but the final result, 393 votes against and only 37 for, is an indication of the strong feeling amongst the workers that the proposal fell far below their expectations.

Indeed, the caveat that workers could not access cash from the fund was certainly a significant barrier to attracting the workers' support.

“The result of the ballot should be a wake-up call to the Government, the liquidators, KPMG, and the company, that the workers will only accept a fair redundancy package."

Taoiseach Micheál Martin previously defended his Government, saying that the State had supported workers paying €13m in statutory redundancy — it was the private sector that failed.

Last week, Debenhams halted its Irish online operation, saying that “uncertainty” over new Brexit trade rules forced the decision.

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