Ex-Debenhams workers end 406-day dispute and accept €3m training fund

Workers say they were disappointed but voted for Government offer after months of pickets

Former Debenhams workers have voted to accept a revised €3 million training fund, bringing to an end a bitter 406-day dispute.

Acceptance of the offer from Government, by 319 votes to 102, comes more than 400 days after Debenhams UK announced none of its 11 Irish outlets would reopen after the coronavirus pandemic, making its approximately 1,000 mostly-female workforce redundant.

The fashion retailer also said it would not honour a 2016 agreement to pay two weeks’ ex-gratia pay per year of service, plus the statutory two weeks of entitlements.

On May 27th, 2020, the workers balloted for official strike, giving legal protection to pickets on stores, which have remained in place since.

Reacting to the result, Valerie Conlon, shop steward at the Cork Patrick Street branch, said the offer was "disappointing" and it had been accepted "not because we were happy with it".

She said: “We were anything but happy with the offer but we can’t be on the picket this time next year. A decision had to be made.”

Upskilling fund

The €3 million training and upskilling fund, which will be administered by the State training agency Solas was first proposed following mediation by Labour Court chairman Kevin Foley last December.

His report concluded there were insufficient assets in the Debenhams Ireland operation to meet the costs of honouring the “two plus two” demands of the workers.

They continued their pickets on stores to prevent the removal of stock by liquidators KPMG. Stock has nonetheless been removed in recent weeks during late-night standoffs between picketers and liquidators, with gardaí at times intervening to remove picketers.

In November 2020, the Government appointed Mr Foley as a mediator in the dispute. His initial recommendation for a training fund was rejected in a ballot in January and shop stewards re-entered talks with Solas to more finely tailor the deal to the workers’ wants and needs.

Ms Conlon, noting the “big number that voted no”, said it showed “just how unhappy people really were with the deal”.

The low turnout – 421 out of an electorate of more than 900 – also reflected the lack of enthusiasm for it. “I think we can walk away with our head high but we are still fighting hard for legislation to protect the employees who lose their jobs in cases like this,” said Ms Conlon.

The strikers called for implementation of protections first recommended in the 2016 report by former Labour Court chairman Kevin Duffy and senior counsel Nessa Cahill. It was written after the sudden closure of Clerys and loss of 430 jobs.

The Government-commissioned report on improving employees’ rights in insolvencies recommends liquidators consult with workers for 30 days to allow them to negotiate best possible redundancy terms and the State’s hand be strengthened in recovering payments towards redundancies from the company’s assets.

‘Tossed aside’

The Department of Enterprise said implementation of the Duffy-Cahill report “would not have solved the problem with Debenhams” as there was no significant asset like the Clerys building. The Debenhams workers say, however, they could not have been “tossed aside” so easily had the Duffy-Cahill recommendations been in place.

In a joint-statement on Thursday, shop stewards were critical of their union, saying: “Once Mandate saw our willingness to fight they should have thrown their full weight behind us and pressured [Congress] to do likewise and take up Debenhams as an important test case.”

Mandate general secretary Gerry Light praised the "strong will and resilience of our striking members who refused to accept defeat in the face of adversity".

“These brave trade unionists maintained their legal pickets no matter the weather and in the midst of a global pandemic they socially distanced on picket lines whilst facing down the Government and KPMG at every opportunity.

“We acknowledge this is not a perfect deal as it falls short of our members original demands, however, it represents the best achievable negotiated settlement under very difficult circumstances.”

Debenhams declined to comment.