‘We are still here 12 months later, still fighting': Debenhams workers in negotiation over €3m fund as they mark year of action

‘We are still here 12 months later, still fighting': Debenhams workers in negotiation over €3m fund as they mark year of action

Three of the former Debenhams workers (from left) Jo Finn, Carol Ann Bridgeman, Mandate shop steward, and Ber Lynch marking one year since they received the email that their jobs were gone pictured socially distanced outside the store at Mahon Point Shopping Centre, Cork.

VALERIE CONLON, spokeswoman for former Debenhams workers on Patrick St, says she is proud of what the ex-employees have achieved since the retailer closed its doors in Ireland.

Debenhams workers around the country yesterday marked a year since the company announced the closure of all its stores here.

They included two stores in Cork, Patrick St and in Mahon Point. Former workers at the stores have since been involved in a drawn-out dispute with the company over their redundancy package.

The protest has seen months of pickets being held outside stores and disputes over attempts to remove stock and assets from the closed stores.

Some of the former Debenhams workers (front) Susan O'Mahony (left) and Deirdre Power and (back from left) Gillian McSweeney, Orla Dowling and Ciara Hartnett marking one year since they received the email that their jobs were gone pictured socially distanced outside the store on St. Patrick's St., Cork.Picture Denis Minihane.
Some of the former Debenhams workers (front) Susan O'Mahony (left) and Deirdre Power and (back from left) Gillian McSweeney, Orla Dowling and Ciara Hartnett marking one year since they received the email that their jobs were gone pictured socially distanced outside the store on St. Patrick's St., Cork.Picture Denis Minihane.

Ms Conlon said they had raised awareness of a serious issue and they had done so with dignity.

“We are still here 12 months later, still fighting,” she told The Echo.

“I am so proud of what we have achieved, not many groups have managed what we have.

“We have made our point, we have met with the Taoiseach and not many people can say that.”

Ms Conlon said they have helped people to understand the ongoing issue regarding the lack of legislative support for employees.

“Employees need to be looked after as much as the employee,” said Ms Conlon. “That would make life a lot easier for a lot of people.”

At the moment, the former employees of Debenhams are in meetings with Solas to learn more about the €3m training fund set up by the Government last December.

The fund was part of a recommendation handed out by mediator and Labour Court chairman Kevin Foley during discussions with the workers and their union Mandate, along with the liquidators KPMG and other Government agencies.

In January, the ex-employees rejected the deal and called for the money to be used to top up their statutory redundancy payments, which was subsequently ruled out by Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

Speaking to The Echo yesterday, Ms Conlon said the workers are now in informative meetings with Solas as to what can be done with the money and following these meetings, Mandate will call a vote and the former Debenhams workers will decide if the fund should be put to use.

“Previously, we were voting on something we knew very little about,” Ms Conlon said.

“Now, we are more informed about the fund and what it can do for us, pay for training courses, etc. There are a few things involved.”

It is understood the workers will be able to claim for a range of supports, including technology and access to childcare while they retrain or reskill, if they accept the fund.

While negotiations are ongoing, Ms Conlon said that the workers still wanted to see something done to bolster the support network for employees who may find themselves in a similar situation.

Sinn Féin TD for Cork North Central Thomas Gould said employees needed to be better protected by the State. “These workers have been campaigning for a fair and just settlement for one year now,” he said.

“We have been here time and time again — Clerys, La Senza, Paris Bakery, and now Debenhams.

“The reality is, companies can only engage in this behaviour because successive governments have let them do so through their failure to legislate to protect workers.”

Solidarity TD Mick Barry said he has been given the green light by the Oireachtas to move a bill which aims to improve the position of workers in liquidation situations.

Mr Barry will move the Companies (Protection of Employees Rights in Liquidations) Bill 2021 when the Dáil reconvenes.

The bill seeks to add an article to the Company’s Act that would prioritise payment to workers in a liquidation situation.

The bill also seeks to make unpaid collective redundancy payments into a debt in a liquidation situation.

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