Former Debenhams workers commended for ‘epic journey’

By Maurice Garvey

ON MAY 20, former Debenhams workers voted to accept a revised €3 million training fund, which finally brought to an end a long drawn out 406-day dispute.

Workers on the picket line at The Square in Tallaght accepted they were being shunted by the UK company, who said it would not honour a 2016 agreement to pay two weeks’ ex-gratia pay per year of service, plus the statutory two weeks of entitlements.

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Former Debenhams workers protesting outside The Square Shopping Centre

However, one of the longest strike actions in the history of the State had greater meaning than meagre statutory entitlements.

The dispute once again threw a light on the Duffy-Cahill report, which if implemented for Clery’s workers, would not have seen Debenhams staff left to fend for themselves.

It was also a matter of principle for workers to not roll over and have their bellies tickled by liquidators KPMG. The legacy former Debenhams hope to pave the way for is new legislation proposed on the back of this dispute, which will protect other workers in the industry.

Carol Quinn, former shop steward in Debenhams Tallaght for 30 years, commended her striking colleagues and supporters for the “epic journey”.

“From day one we were up against the Covid pandemic and a government that led us up the garden path with tea and sympathy,” she said.

“We were part of three campaigns to try change the law so that workers who had contractual rights would receive them. The latest being the Debenhams bill by Mick Barry of the Solidarity & Socialist Party. 

“The journey is not over yet. We have been promised that within a year the bill will be addressed and hopefully voted in. This will be our legacy.

“On a positive note, we stood up for workers rights and we feel we have gained a lot. If we had just accepted a generic email saying your job has gone and done nothing, well the liquidator KPMG would have had an easy closure. We stopped the trucks and did not make it easy for them.”

Former workers The Echo spoke to this week were disappointed with their union Mandate.

Pauline Brunell, who worked in Debenhams Tallaght for 10 years, said: “Throughout lockdowns, quarantine, and through family issues we never left that picket line. For 406 days we stood tall and never gave up. We marked 100 days with no Mandate representation, 200 days passed, 300 days passed and 400 days passed with still no sign of Mandate. That says a lot of our union.”

“We were supported by the socialist parties but got no physical support from Mandate,” said Marie Leonard, who worked in Roches/Debenhams for 30 years.

 “They said they were working behind the scenes but we never saw any evidence of this.”

Marie said her time on the picket line “was an education in the way this country is run”.

“Workers are at the back of the queue for everything. Big business is definitely king in this country. Their needs and profits come first. The Cahill/Duffy report was forgotten about for six years. Had this been implemented we would have received our agreed redundancy.”

“I was so shocked when I got the email telling me my job was gone. I felt powerless, undervalued and betrayed. I gave a lot to this company, sacrificed bonuses, pay cuts, pay freezes and much more to keep this company going.

“It was making money but it was being funneled back to the UK. We then decided as workers not to just slip away and be forgotten. I helped organise our first protest up at the Square outside Tesco.”

Carol Quinn said workers also called on ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) several times but “never got one reply or any support”.

“Most would say they will never join a union again. You could sense we were a thorn in their side. Workers around the country ran this campaign.”

It was tough at times, recalls Marie Leonard.

“We wanted our agreed redundancy 2+2 and heard trucks might be coming to empty the store. As far as we were concerned that was our redundancy money, so we moved to the loading bay,” she said.

“We stopped trucks looking for paperwork, some got a bit aggressive but when we explained, they were very sympathetic and understood.

“Most said they would never pass an official picket. I did night shifts for a while but they were very tough to keep up.

“There were good times and bad times on the pickets. One night when I was on, one of our men supporters was attacked for no reason by someone passing by. Myself and another girl had to try and stop him. It was a very frightening experience.”

One thing all of the workers wanted to express was their appreciation for the kindness shown to them by the community in Tallaght, who provided an endless supply of teas, coffees and support.

Looking forward, Ms Quinn said she will move on and do some courses with Solas.

“The staff accepted this so called gesture and so be it. It’s better than nothing. I really hope we all get something out of it.”

Ms Leonard blasted the silence from ICTU and the lack of meaningful support from government.

“They stood by and allowed KPMG to use the gardai to drag people off the pickets,” she said.

She intends to pursue Mick Barry’s bill and other things with regard to workers rights.

 It’s a case of trying to move forward now and make the most of the Solas training fund and hope for the best.”

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