Special Report: Debenhams strikers won't back down

Two of the former Debenhams staff picketing in St Patrick’s St, Cork, told Liz Dunphy they are determined to get the redundancy terms that they agreed to in 2016
Special Report: Debenhams strikers won't back down

"KPMG ARE YOU JOKING??" asks a young attendee Erika Dorgan particpates in the 150th day of action to prevent the removal of stock from the premises.Pic; Larry Cummins

“Keep up the fight, girls,” a woman says as she passes former Debenhams workers who are picketing the Cork store, day and night, blocking the removal of almost €5m worth of stock until they get the redundancy pay they say they are owed.

“It’s awful what they did to you, we’re all on your side,” another woman says seconds later, giving a thumbs up as she walks by the St Patrick's Street entrance.

Almost 40 former Debenhams employees — all women, bar two — have been guarding the three entrances to the building on Patrick St, Maylor St, and Merchant St, off Parnell Place, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since they were made redundant in April.

Two of the protest leaders, Valerie Conlon and Madeline Whelan, went from serving customers and hauling rails of clothes around a department store to managing a large team of protestors and meeting ministers in the Dáil.

They have Cork’s media on speed dial, frequently speak on live radio, know how to quickly ignite a Twitter storm, and their Whatsapp group, Picket Pals, pings almost constantly.

 Natasha Crowley with Louie and Jamie O'Connell demonstrating against the closure of the department store.
Natasha Crowley with Louie and Jamie O'Connell demonstrating against the closure of the department store.

Ms Conlon and Ms Whelan went from working three and four days a week, respectively, to being constantly on call, taking calls from distressed colleagues fretting about their future at 3am, and avoiding alcohol at celebratory events and nights out so they are ready to drive if they’re needed on the picket.

Some signs and fluorescent yellow vests were provided by their trade union Mandate for the picket, but other daily essentials — such as hand sanitiser for the protesters — are paid for from their own fast-emptying pockets.

Keeping the picket going has taken grit and determination.

The laneway they guard off Parnell Place “can be quite dodgy” with open drug use, urination and defecation so the women guard the entrance in twos at night while sitting in their cars.

During the recent red weather alert, Ms Conlon left her home in Ballygarvan just after 5am, negotiating fallen trees and hazardous conditions on the road to get in for the 6am shift that day, her car shaking in the howling wind.

A potential deal between trade union Mandate and Debenhams’ liquidator KPMG was announced on Friday which, Mandate suggested, could end the dispute which has raged since April.

However, Ms Conlon slammed the deal as “paltry” and said that “nothing has been resolved”.

Protests at the shuttered stores nationwide went ahead on Saturday despite news of the negotiations.

It is understood the deal hinges on selling off stock from two stores — one in Cork and one in Dublin — depending on landlord approval.

KPMG said on Friday that "no settlement has yet been agreed”, but it is believed that the deal may amount to €1m shared among the employees on top of their statutory redundancy entitlement, the extra funds potentially generated by selling off stock.

KPMG say that the longer stock is locked away, the more it depreciates in value.

However, Ms Conlon said that, as the statutory redundancy terms — two weeks' pay for every year of service plus one further week's pay — would amount to between €10m and €11m for the group of workers, a potential deal that added only €1m was not good enough.

Full details of the finalised deal will be sent to the workers this week ahead of a national information meeting and a subsequent ballot.

"I’m telling staff to vote ‘no’ on it,” she said. 

Their former employer, Debenhams Ireland, operated 11 stores nationwide before it was put into liquidation in April.

The UK parent company, in serious financial trouble itself, cut financial support to the Irish business resulting in more than 1,400 job losses in Ireland — 950 direct employees and a further 500 who worked at its concession stands.

Formers workers and supporters protested at Mahon Point, Co Cork on Saturday 5th September 2020. Pic; Larry Cummins
Formers workers and supporters protested at Mahon Point, Co Cork on Saturday 5th September 2020. Pic; Larry Cummins

Just two of Debenhams Irish stores were profitable when it was closed — Mahon Point in Cork and one store in Dublin — but Ms Conlon said that the Patrick St store was close to profitability and their online business was growing each year.

They believe that the profits from any assets in Ireland should be used to pay workers what they say they are owed, not funnelled back into the former UK parent company.

“We are creditors. We should be treated as such by KPMG,” she said. “I saw on Sky News that the UK company went into administration in April. We were worried but management assured us that it was just the UK that was in trouble, that Ireland was solid and we weren’t closing. 

“Then we got the email later that week on April 9, Holy Thursday, saying our jobs were gone,” Ms Conlon said.

“By Monday the fire was in us,” Madeline Whelan said. “They had just thrown us under the bus. 

“So we got on to our colleagues and out of 300 union workers, 39 or 40 agreed to picket.” 

Inside the service yard off Parnell Place stands the gaping trade door for Debenhams.

Marks & Spencers and Supervalu still use the yard to load stock, and the picketers are now on first-name terms with most of the delivery drivers.

Three attempts have been made to empty the premises but Valerie, Madeline, and their team forced the van drivers to return all stock.

May 15 was the first attempt to empty the store.

“A taxi driver called me to say that the shutters were up,” Ms Conlon said. 

“It was about 11pm and, within 20 minutes, we had 20 people down there to stop them.” 

Then on May 26, a cash van arrived to remove money from the Bureau de Change in the store.

“The guards said that we’d be arrested if we didn’t leave the cash van out so we had to comply. But that’s the first and only time we’ve been threatened with arrest," Ms Conlon said. “A van arrived to remove stock from the concession stores on July 6. They were there from 9am to 5.05pm. They took a few rails of clothes at first, but we made them put them back before they could leave,” Ms Whelan said.

“On August 14, the same van driver was back. That was one of the most stressful days of my life,” Ms Conlon said. “I was with my 96-year-old mum that day. There was the threat of an injunction. Ms Whelan was busy with her family too.

“We told the girls not to let the stock leave the shop but we couldn’t risk getting them into any legal trouble so I knew I had to get there myself.

 Pictured is Anna Bialocka former Debenham worker outside he store on Henry Street in Dublin. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie
 Pictured is Anna Bialocka former Debenham worker outside he store on Henry Street in Dublin. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

“There was a standoff. When I got there I argued that the stock should not leave. Mandate agreed and the vans didn’t leave until they were empty,” she said.

That win lifted people's spirits, though. It put the fire in their bellies, Madeline Whelan said.

“We usually don’t have much to smile about, but that was a win, knowing that we had stopped the van leaving. Knowing that we could continue fighting.” 

A collective agreement negotiated by Mandate in 2016 entitled Debenhams employees to redundancy pay of four weeks' wages per year of service.

“We had to fight for that,” Ms Conlon said. 

“They wanted to leave us just with the statutory pay, but we fought for it and we got it. And we’re going to get it this time too.

“We’re not moving until we get the two plus two weeks of pay per year of service, and the Duffy Cahill bill [Protection of Employees (Collective Redundancies) Bill 2017] is brought into law, because we don’t want this to ever happen to anyone else.” 

She appealed to her former boss, John Bebbington: “Do something for us. We worked with you for years. Please take us off the streets," she said.

Fighting for their rights has been made easier by the deep bond many of the women developed over decades working together.

Many of them worked in the shop when it operated as Roches Stores, before Debenhams took over, with working relationships becoming friendships over the years.

Lockdown Day 163. Day 69 of Phase Three. Debenham strikers protesting outside the store on Henry Street in Dublin.Photo: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie
Lockdown Day 163. Day 69 of Phase Three. Debenham strikers protesting outside the store on Henry Street in Dublin.Photo: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

“We have a fierce bond,” Madeline Whelan said. 

“We didn’t just grow up together, we grew old together.” 

“When I started here I had a baby. He’s 26 now,” Ms Conlon said.

“We’d organise dinners together and went on holiday to Liverpool together before we lost our jobs,” Ms Whelan said.

“We were like one big family unit, particularly the ex-Roches staff. Everyone was very friendly and got on.

“One of the girls said that coping with the death of her father has been harder this year than when he died because we’re not all around, supporting her, any more.

“We worked hard in womenswear but there was good camaraderie. That’s all gone from people’s lives now.” 

When Debenhams took over from Roches Stores, employees had to work more late nights and longer shifts, Ms Conlon said, but they put their shoulder to the wheel to keep it ticking over. 

"We did everything we could to save the shop,” according to Madeline Whelan, who has worked at the premises for 30 years.

They said that some Cork TDs and councillors have been supportive, visiting them at the picket and offering support — but others have “ignored hundreds of emails” asking for help.

“Four weeks ago, we were up with Micheál Martin in the Dáil and he came to the picket. He said he supports us but nothing's happened yet," Ms Conlon said. 

"It’s very disheartening for the girls. We try to shield some information from them so as not to give them false hope. It’s difficult enough to keep going without unnecessary disappointments. Enough of us are already having sleepless nights.”

The protesters said that proceeds from the debenhams.ie website should stay in Ireland, but they believe that it has been taken over by the UK division now. They have asked Michael McGrath, the public expenditure minister, to investigate the issue.

“In 2018, debenhams.ie was making €28m. With Covid, the figures were estimated at €40m,” Ms Conlon said.

“That money should be used to pay staff here what we are owed.” 

Madeline Whelan said: “They’re still trying to keep the online shop open and we would ask people to boycott debenhams.ie."

The women estimate that it would cost almost €10m to pay former staff from its 11 stores the two weeks redundancy pay per year of service.

ormer Debenhams picket at the goods entrance on Parnell Place, Cork City (front right) Gary Baus, People Before Profit who wrote new lyrics for the song 'Pay Me My Money Down' in support of the Debenham workers.
ormer Debenhams picket at the goods entrance on Parnell Place, Cork City (front right) Gary Baus, People Before Profit who wrote new lyrics for the song 'Pay Me My Money Down' in support of the Debenham workers.

Mandate and KPMG say that another retailer may reopen some of the Debenhams stores, providing jobs to some former staff. However, almost all of the women the Irish Examiner spoke to said that they will never work in retail again.

“It’s a thankless job,” Ms Whelan said.  “I’ll definitely do a course when this is all over. I’d like to work in admin. I definitely will not go back into retail.” 

Valerie Conlon, who worked in Roches and then Debenhams for 24 years, worries that the profile she has built up as “a troublemaker” during the protests may preclude her from employment in the future.

“My son said, ‘you better hope no one Googles your name when you’re going for a job," she said.

“I’m 56 now. I do wonder who would employ me. It is a worry.

“I have good and bad days. Some days it is very hard. I sit there and I think, ‘I have to get my life back together'.  

“My husband has been a fantastic support. And my son always picks me up when I’m down."

Madeline Whelan said: “I was devastated at the start, but then the fight began. There are good and bad days.

“At the August weekend I thought ‘I’ve had enough,’ but then something picks you up. Someone tries to help you, or you hear a joke from the girls, and you remember why you’re doing it again.”

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