Urgent need to reform liquidation law to prevent ‘retail massacre’, Dáil hears

Solidarity TD introduces worker protection Bill on back of Debenhams strike

Former Debenhams staff rally outside the store on Henry Street in Dublin: New Bill aims to ‘change the law to place workers in the very front of the queue when it comes to making payments from liquidators’ pots’, says  Mick Barry. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Former Debenhams staff rally outside the store on Henry Street in Dublin: New Bill aims to ‘change the law to place workers in the very front of the queue when it comes to making payments from liquidators’ pots’, says Mick Barry. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

There is an urgent need to reform legislation on liquidations to protect workers from a “retail massacre” in the autumn when state supports are withdrawn, the Dáil has been told.

Solidarity TD Mick Barry made the claim as he introduced a Bill to prioritise workers in future liquidations. Mr Barry said 30 per cent of shops on Henry Street, Dublin, are empty with a similar situation in shopping centres around the country.

“Another big wave of redundancies” will happen in the autumn he said. “There is, therefore, an urgent need to put in place protections for these workers in advance of the withdrawal of State supports for business.”

He was introducing the Companies (Protection of Employees’ Rights in Liquidations) Bill, nicknamed the Debenhams Bill for former workers at the department store who have been protesting outside the company’s shops for the past 13 months since its liquidation.

Mr Barry said the Bill would not benefit the mainly female Debenhams workforce but it aims to “change the law to place workers in the very front of the queue when it comes to making payments from liquidators’ pots as is the case in Greece, France and Portugal”.

He accused the Government of “double standards” because it was proposing changes in examinerships to facilitate businesses but “doesn’t see the urgent need to change the liquidation law for workers”.

People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny said of the long-running Debenhams’ protest that “this strike will come to a conclusion, probably in the next couple of weeks”.

He said the strike would be remembered alongside the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike and the dispute at Clondalkin Paper Mills.

Fair settlement

Mr Kenny said the workers wanted a fair settlement for decades of work and to ensure that a similar situation never occurred again, where the company “let them down terribly” and where, he claimed, they were “subject to police harassment and maligned by Debenhams and by certain parts of the Government”.

He criticised the Government for failing to implement the Duffy Cahill report published five years ago on workers’ rights in insolvencies, which he said would have prevented the Debenhams situation.

“Reports are printed, put on shelves and nothing happens,” he said.

But Minister of State Damien English said it was “wrong, untrue and dishonest to keep linking” Debenhams with the situation at Clerys department store, on which the Duffy Cahill report was based. He said the report’s authors said it would not have prevented the issues with Debenhams because they were two different situations.

The Government called for debate on the legislation to be delayed for 12 months pending its own legislation to enhance protection of employees as creditors “in a way that does not unduly impede enterprises in the conduct of their business”.

Mr English and Mr Troy stressed the legislation would be brought forward sooner than the 12-month deadline.

Mr Troy insisted the Government “has done all that it can to ensure that former Debenhams workers’ legal rights and entitlements were vindicated” and it went further in recognising “the significance of the situation”.

He said “what Government did not do was unfairly build up former Debenhams workers’ expectations of what could be done.

“It is entirely regrettable that this happened – at their expense – and that some exploited their situation for political gain,” he said.

However, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett claimed the Government “sat idly by” while Debenhams workers “stood on picket lines in hail, rain and snow throughout this pandemic, fighting for justice and the right cause on behalf of every worker in this country”.

He said “there will likely be a retail massacre, with more workers facing the injustice the Debenhams workers have faced”.