Former Debenhams workers protest a year on from closure

‘We were devastated,’ says former shop steward at march outside Henry Street branch

The one-year anniversary of the Debenhams dispute was marked with marches and protests outside the retailer's 11 former stores on Friday.

Carrying banners, placards and chanting “The workers united will never be defeated,” ex-employees of Dublin’s Henry Street branch marched down Moore Street shortly after 11am – at about the same time as they were told by email, by Debenhams UK, on April 9th, 2020, that their jobs were gone.

Since then, the mostly female workforce numbering more than 1,000 has been protesting against the manner of the closure by liquidation during a pandemic, and demanding a 2016 agreement with their union Mandate – that they would receive two weeks’ pay per year of service in addition to two weeks’ statutory redundancy – be honoured.

They have received only their statutory entitlements. Following a ballot, they have been on official strike since May 27th last, maintaining pickets at stores to prevent stock being removed by liquidators KPMG.

Shop steward Jane Crowe addressed the approximately 30 strikers and supporter gathered outside the branch. "This time last year we were devastated. Most of us had given most of our lives to that company," Ms Crowe said.

“Who’d have thought it would come to this, that we are still here fighting for our two-plus-two [redundancy]. We are still waiting for our plus two and we are looking for the company to pay that. We are not going away and will keep fighting.”

‘Still fighting’

Referring to the plan by Debenhams UK to briefly open 97 branches for a “fire sale” of unsold stock, she said most of the Irish stock remained in the shops despite the post-midnight removal of some from the Blanchardstown branch last week. “No doubt that’s gone now to the UK to be sold. But we are still here, still fighting,” she said.

"And we are not just fighting for us. We are fighting for all generations to come, our children and grandchildren." She reiterated a call for the implementation of a 2016 report by former Labour Court chairman Kevin Duffy and senior counsel Nessa Cahill on how to best protect workers laid off in the context of insolvency.

Commissioned after the sudden closure of Clerys and the loss of 430 jobs, it recommends liquidators consult with workers for 30 days to allow them to negotiate the best possible redundancy terms and the State's hand be strengthened in recovering payments towards redundancies from the company's assets.

Duffy-Cahill remains unacted on by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. A spokesman said: “The effective protection of the rights of workers in the context of a collective redundancy on foot of insolvency is receiving active consideration.”

Ms Crowe called on Government to “get up off their backside now and listen to the workers who are carrying this country . . . Get up off your backsides and pass this legislation that this doesn’t happen to anybody again in the future.”

The slogans on the banners included: “One full year locked down, locked out, still undefeated” and “Together united we will never be defeated, the mighty Debenhams workers.”

A low-key Garda presence looked on as Brid Smith led a chorus of John Lennon's call-to-action song Power to the People. No officials from Mandate were present.

The empty building behind the strikers which had housed Debenhams’ main Irish outlet was shuttered. Black-plastic sheeting that had covered the inside display windows was falling down, revealing naked and semi-dressed mannequins. On the footpath, sheltered by an overhead awning, were five tents accommodating homeless people.

The strikers remain in talks with the State training agency, Solas, on a €3 million fund provided by the Government to provide supports with upskilling, business start-ups and training.

Ms Crowe said it remained their preference that at least some of that fund be provided in cash, especially to those nearing retirement age.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times