“I still feel like somebody is going to pinch me and wake me up,” Debenhams worker Therese Walsh said as she joined fellow staff members outside the Patrick’s Street store in Cork to protest on Tuesday.
Of the hundreds of staff that lost their jobs between the two Debenhams stores in Cork - on Patrick’s Street and in Mahon Point - just a small number gathered, due to social distancing. They dressed in black to highlight their case this morning.
Staff in four Dublin stores also gathered, however, Gardaí dispersed the protest at the Henry Street store. Gardaí were monitoring the protest in Cork city centre, but there were no such issues.
An email was sent to Debenhams staff members on April 9, telling them that the Irish stores would not reopen and a liquidator would be appointed. Staff have still not been formally laid off, nor have they received any information about any potential redundancy packages.
Staff told The Echo that anyone who has been with the company for less than two years or who works part-time isn't eligible for statutory redundancy.
“I have worked 30 years in this store. I started when it was Roches Stores in the supermarket going way back," Ms Walsh said. "I’m really here for justice. We worked damn hard and to turn around and get nothing from them, I just feel it’s not fair,”
“Everything they asked for we gave them. We’re just asking for a little bit of consideration.
“We’re one big happy family. If one feels the pain, we all feel the pain. We’ve rallied around together. We’ve seen sad times, we’ve seen happy times, and we’re there for each other. This is why today you can see we are there for each other. There could be more only for social distancing.
“It’s just a very very sad time. I personally don’t feel like it has hit me properly yet, because we're in this Covid thing at the moment. When that’s finished it will hit me with a whammy."
Claire O’Leary, a women's accessories supervisor in Debenhams Patrick’s Street said the manner in which staff are being treated after decades of service is disgraceful but, like Therese, isn’t sure the gravity of the situation has hit home just yet.
Going forward she is concerned about job prospects, given the current economic climate and other retailers potentially closing.
“We’re all going to be interviewing for the same jobs. It’s just terrible,” she said.
However, despite everything she was happy to see the people she has worked with for the last ten years.
“It’s great to see everyone, even under these circumstances. We miss each other. We had great camaraderie in the shop. It’s just terrible it has come to this.
“I think we just want to be treated fairly and get what we’re entitled to. Not to be ignored."
Helen Devlin, another employee said that she decided to protect to “make everybody aware of the situation that we’re facing at the moment.”
She said that since the initial email from Debenhams, there has been radio silence from the company.
“We haven’t had any notification from Debenhams since (April 9), or anything to do with redundancies, or pensions, p45s or anything like that,” she said.
Pam Keating, who’s on the house committee at Debenhams told The Echo what she was hoping for from today’s protest: “We’re just hoping that we’ll be listened to really. Under normal circumstances you would have a protest outside the door but since we can’t do that it’s all online and social media. We’re just highlighting it, that the Government might step in and stop Debenhams and have them take responsibility for what they have done."
Asked what would be the ideal outcome of the protest, she said there is none.
“There’s no best case scenario. Our jobs are gone. We’re just fighting for a decent redundancy package. It’s just awful to see Debenhams walking away from Ireland and not paying out penny, and leaving it to the Government and the taxpayers.”
The workers have garnered plenty of political support. Lord Mayor Councillor John Sheehan met the workers on Patrick’s street this morning. He said the manner in which the staff have been dealt with by Debenhams is “deplorable” and wanted to show his support for them.
“To come here today is just to show solidarity with them, but also to thank all of them for their service for what they have done for the people of Cork. We all have memories of coming in here as children when it was Roches Stores. It’s one of those institutions in Cork and the way the workers were treated is frankly disgraceful,” he said.
Solidarity TD Mick Barry told The Echo: “Retail Ireland say that there are 110,000 jobs on the line, so it’s good to see retail workers standing up and fighting back. I hope that the Oasis workers, the Warehouse workers and the Laura Ashley workers take their cue from this. The Government can’t be allowed to stand idly by to wash their hands of it.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin TD Thomas Gould said that the company has handled the situation very poorly.
“I hope that the company are not abusing the Covid-19 crisis, because these workers have given years of service, and they should be respected and treated with fairness.
“If they won’t reopen the stores, I think they should pay the workers a fair redundancy and they should pay them all the entitlements that they are due.”