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Martin: Debenhams workers 'badly let down' but Government cannot legally intervene

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has urged KPMG to get back to the negotiating table, as workers from Debenhams Ireland vowed to escalate their ongoing campaign for a "decent redundancy package".

Mr Martin came under heavy fire from opposition TDs today who accused the Government of paying lip service to the workers, some of whom engaged in sit-ins in Patrick St in Cork and Henry St in Dublin, vowing not to give up the fight until they receive a "just package".

Liquidators KPMG said it was withdrawing an offer it made last week in response to the sit-ins, which saw six people arrested by gardaí in relation to trespassing at Henry St. 

By contrast, gardaí in Cork were applauded by workers as they left the scene at St Patrick's St, allowing the sit-in to continue as long as health and safety measures were adhered to, with workers saying they had been treated by members of the force with dignity and respect.

The offer made by KPMG was roundly dismissed by workers as insulting and derisory, saying it amounted to one day per year of service for some on top of their two-week per year statutory entitlement. 

Some 1,000 employees were made redundant when the firm went into liquidation in April. The workers and Mandate trade union have been campaigning since then.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Cork North Central Solidarity TD, Mick Barry roundly criticised the Taoiseach, accusing him of "throwing workers on the scrapheap" during terse exchanges in the Dáil.

Mr Barry said the case was a "litmus test" for how workers would be treated during the Covid-19 pandemic, adding that the arrest of Henry St workers was "scandalous".

The workers were not the criminals, he said, but the real issue was of a "company that robbed them of a decent redundancy package".

Ms McDonald said urging parties to negotiate around the table was an empty gesture, as similar situations would happen "again and again, time after time" until loopholes allowing companies to do so were closed.

The Taoiseach said that while the workers were "very badly let down" by the company, the Government was powerless to intervene legally.

There should be further dialogue because "engagement was absolutely essential", he said.

Mr Martin said the workers had been treated "shabbily and shoddily and unacceptably". 

He added there are certain "loopholes" that need to be closed in order for this situation not to occur again and the government's Company Law Review Group would be finished by "quarter four of this year".

"In my view, KPMG the liquidators and others should engage in dialogue, to see if that can be that can be improved upon that package," Mr Martin said.

"What we shouldn't do to the workers is to try and pretend to the workers that we can do everything and work on a perfect solution. 

"I think there's been a lot of false dawns painted for the workers by others over the last couple of weeks."

Madeline Whelan, who worked for 30 years in Patrick Street in Cork, told the Irish Examiner that the offer made last week by KPMG was the catalyst for the sit-ins.

We couldn't standby and leave nothing happen after that. The €1m offered will give us a day on top of statutory redundancy, that was a total insult. 

"It was a disgrace, not an offer. There are divide-and-conquer tactics happening now, trying to insinuate that we are stopping others from considering the offer. It won't work. 

"KPMG withdrawing their offer doesn't change a thing, because it didn't make a difference to our position in the first place. The pickets will go on. We are over 150 days picketing, if we have to do another 150 days, we will fight on."

KPMG had earlier stated in relation to the sit-ins that "no further settlement agreements will be negotiated by the liquidators with the former employees".

Mandate said it is disappointed the liquidators withdrew the offer and called on "all parties to immediately engage to find a satisfactory resolution to the dispute".

Gerry Light, Mandate assistant general secretary said: "These workers have spent the last 152 days on strike outside their place of employment because their employer, Debenhams Ireland, completely discarded them. The law allowed that company to tear up the worker’s redundancy agreement and transfer valuable assets over to the UK parent company leaving their workers with nothing.”