'A sad day for retail': Debenhams workers respond to Boohoo's takeover 

Workers in Leicester factories also reported working throughout the pandemic despite government guidelines and high Covid transmission in the area.
'A sad day for retail': Debenhams workers respond to Boohoo's takeover 

Valerie Conlon and former staff members take part in a socially-distanced protest outside Debenhams on St Patrick's Street, Cork. Picture:  Dan Linehan

“A sad day for retail” is how former Debenhams staff described the company's takeover by online fashion retailer Boohoo.

Former Debenhams worker and Mandate shop steward Valerie Conlon said that some 12,000 UK workers may now face what Debenhams’ Irish staff did last year — waking up in the morning to find that their job was gone.

“They’re not doing Debenhams staff any favours in England because they’re closing all the shops," said Ms Conlon, who worked at Debenhams on St Patrick's St, Cork.

It's all online, that’s the way the market is going. It’s a shame really, the fact that Debenhams was bought after 243 years by an online company that doesn’t treat their staff very well. It’s a sad day.

Boohoo bought the Debenhams brand for £55m (€62m). It now aims to create the UK’s largest marketplace for fashion, beauty, sport, and homeware.

The Manchester-based online fast-fashion retailer was formed in 2006 and has grown rapidly since, with sales of £1.2bn last year and some 5,000 employees.

However, it has also gained a reputation for treating workers poorly. 

The Guardian previously exposed how Boohoo had paid factory workers in the UK below the minimum wage, with a third-party audit suggesting that some could have been paid as little as £3 and £4 an hour, while factory workers in Pakistan were found to be paid as little as 29p per hour.

Workers in Leicester factories also reported working throughout the pandemic despite government guidelines and high Covid transmission in the area.

Boohoo co-founder Mahmud Kamani has said that his company reacted with speed to address the supply chain scandal.

Now, Ms Conlon is concerned that Boohoo may send in staff to remove stock from the Irish stores.

The worry we have now is that they’ll come looking for stock in our stores. It could happen because they’ve bought the Debenhams name and the Debenhams brands.

Ms Conlon and her former colleagues have been picketing the 11 shuttered stores nationwide, refusing to allow stock to be removed from the buildings unless they are promised enhanced redundancy pay.  

When Debenhams Ireland collapsed in April, the company failed to honour a 2016 collective agreement, leaving former workers relying solely on their statutory redundancy entitlements.

Debenhams Irish liquidators KPMG told Mandate general secretary Gerry Light that the UK sale had "no implications at all" for the Irish liquidation, reports RTÉ.

Ms Conlon and her former colleagues are adamant that no more assets will be stripped from the Irish stores until a “fair” deal has been brokered.

Ongoing protest 

In the meantime, pickets continue at the shuttered Irish stores.

"With Covid, we’re being very careful," said Ms Conlon. "We work in three three-hour shifts with only two people allowed on each shift so that people can keep their distance and feel safer. And everyone has to wear a mask."

Last week, some MPs in the UK called for pension funds for former Debenhams workers to be supplemented by three private equity companies which took over the retail giant in 2003, stripping assets and leaving it with £1.2bn of debt.

The three major global finance companies, Texas Pacific Group, CVC Capital, and Merrill Lynch, which took over the company in 2003, have been blamed by some for Debenhams collapse, reports the Daily Mail.

Those firms should have a 'moral' duty to contribute to pension funds, according to UK Labour MP Margaret Hodge.

"The companies involved made profits in an immoral way," she told the Daily Mail. "It's an outrage this was allowed to happen." 

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