'We're putting down the placards and walking away with our heads held high': Cork workers reflect as Debenhams dispute finally comes to an end

'We're putting down the placards and walking away with our heads held high': Cork workers reflect as Debenhams dispute finally comes to an end

Some of the ex-Debenhams workers outside the former Debenhams store on Patrick's St., Cork, at the end of their 406 day struggle for justice.

After over 406 days of picketing for a just redundancy settlement, former Debenhams workers put down their placards this week and are walking away with their “heads held high”.

It comes as a majority of former Debenhams staff voted to accept the offer of a €3 million training fund.

Former employees said that the settlement does not come anywhere close to the honouring of the four weeks’ pay per year’s service redundancy that was signed off with their former employer, but rather that they had fought “as hard as was possible”.

Valerie Conlon, shop steward, one of the ex-Debenhams workers outside the former Debenhams store on  Patrick St., Cork, at the end of their 406 day struggle for justice. Picture Denis Minihane.
Valerie Conlon, shop steward, one of the ex-Debenhams workers outside the former Debenhams store on  Patrick St., Cork, at the end of their 406 day struggle for justice. Picture Denis Minihane.

Mandate General Secretary, Gerry Light, said that the outcome “is testament to the strong will and resilience of our striking members who refused to accept defeat in the face of adversity”.

Acknowledging that the settlement “is not a perfect deal”, he said that it was also “the best achievable negotiated settlement under very difficult circumstances”.

Valerie Conlon, former shop steward of Debenhams on Patrick St in Cork, said she is “very proud” of all workers who not only fought for themselves but who “also showed the rest of Ireland what can be done when a group of workers gets together”.

“I’m proud of all the pickets but I am so proud of our pickets on Patrick St,” she said.

“They were so dignified with everything and we were able to get our point across without being too noisy and I feel we’ve done it the right way and that’s why we got the respect and support of the Cork people.”

Madeline Whelan, one of the ex-Debenhams workers, outside the former Debenhams store on Patrick St., Cork, at the end of their 406 day struggle for justice. Picture Denis Minihane.
Madeline Whelan, one of the ex-Debenhams workers, outside the former Debenhams store on Patrick St., Cork, at the end of their 406 day struggle for justice. Picture Denis Minihane.

She said that all they are asking for is to be listened to and that “a business wouldn’t be a business unless they have employees”.

Former Debenhams employee Madeline Whelan said that while the settlement was not what they were looking for, they were “determined to walk away with something rather than walk away with nothing”.

Some people would say that we lost a fight, but people had also said that we wouldn’t get anything and we have got something.

She said that the former workers will continue to campaign for legislation that was not in place to protect them “because it’s the younger generation coming up behind us who we’re fighting for”.

“I don’t want any of my family standing on a picket for 406 days and seeing what we’ve seen,” she said.

“We weren’t the first and we won’t be the last — but we won’t be letting it go until we see legislation.

“We made history as everyone keeps telling us, but it was history for all the wrong reasons.”

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Mick Barry, who proposed the bill that seeks to improve workers’ rights in liquidation situations that was deferred for one year, said that the settlement is more than what the workers would have got if they hadn’t have fought but that it was still “ a poor deal”.

Claire O'Leary, one of the ex-Debenhams workers, pictured with her daughter Grace, who was born in November, outside the former Debenhams store on  Patrick St., Cork, at the end of their 406 day struggle for justice. Picture Denis Minihane.
Claire O'Leary, one of the ex-Debenhams workers, pictured with her daughter Grace, who was born in November, outside the former Debenhams store on  Patrick St., Cork, at the end of their 406 day struggle for justice. Picture Denis Minihane.

The Dáil voted 73-62 to defer the Companies (Protection of Employees’ Rights In Liquidations) Bill 2021, nicknamed The Debenhams Bill, for 12 months.

“I think the workers deserved more, but they were very, very badly let down by the Government, and I think that the role that the trade union leadership played was poor,” said Mr Barry.

“I think the fight will go on now to pass legislation which improves workers’ rights in a liquidation situation.

“It’s 10 years since the Vita Cortex dispute and since then we’ve had Clerys, Debenhams, and now Arcadia, so the fight for change on this issue will continue.”

Some of the ex-Debenhams workers outside the former Debenhams store on Patrick St., Cork, at the end of their 406-day struggle for justice. Picture Denis Minihane.
Some of the ex-Debenhams workers outside the former Debenhams store on Patrick St., Cork, at the end of their 406-day struggle for justice. Picture Denis Minihane.

Sinn Féin TD Thomas Gould said he has the highest respect for the Debenhams workers who led a “very dignified campaign” over the course of three lockdowns.

“I feel like the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have left them down,” said the Cork North Central TD. “They should have got the proper redundancy and this is not good enough but it’s all that’s on the table and they had no other choice but they’re being failed.

“And here over a year later, there’s still no legislation to protect workers’ rights so this is an ongoing battle with the Government to protect workers.”

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