The devil wears Debenhams

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Matt Brown

With the strike by Debenhams workers over redundancy conditions surpassing 200 days, Nathan Young visits the picket and talks to union representatives about why they’re striking and what they hope for.

On the ninth of April, Debenhams announced that they were closing down their 11 Irish stores, leading to the loss of around 1000 jobs. At the time, Debenhams CEO Stefaan Vansteenkiste stated: “We are desperately sorry not to be able to keep the Irish business operating but are faced with no alternative option in the current environment. This decision has not been taken lightly and is no way a reflection on our Irish colleagues, whose professionalism and commitment to serving our customers has never been in question. The colleagues have been placed on temporary lay-off under the Irish Government’s Payment Support Schemes for employers and we will be working with them to support them through this process”.

John Douglas, General Secretary of Mandate, The union representing Debenhams workers, described the news as a “massive shock” to Mandate, saying: “Our sympathy is with each and every worker and their families who will today be wondering how they’re going to pay their rent, mortgage or their bills. We are in close contact with the company and will remain so over the forthcoming process. We will be seeking a meeting with the liquidator when they are appointed and demanding that our members are prioritised throughout the liquidation process so that we can get the best possible deal for them.”

Debenhams had agreed to pay an extra two weeks per year of service, on top of the statutory redundancy pay, in 2016 during contract negotiations. Now, laid-off workers were being told that there isn’t money for this to be paid. The workers, mostly women and many of whom have put upwards of twenty years of labour into Debenhams, chose to fight for their full redundancy packages as part of the liquidation being organised by KPMG. With the demand of “2+2”, in reference to the two weeks pay statutory redundancy plus the two weeks pay agreed in 2016, the workers have been picketing all eleven stores for 24 hours a day to prevent stock removal for 208 days. 

There have been several attempts to remove stock, including on more than one occasion when packers where hired from classified ads online. Jane Crowe, the Shop Stewart with Mandate for the Henry Street store, told The University Observer that she and other picketers explained to the packers what the picket was about, and so while some stock was packed for removal, the packers eventually gave up and no stock has yet left a store.

Crowe told The University Observer that one of the biggest obstacles to the picketers is the 1990 Industrial Relations Act. The act severely limits what can and cannot be done as part of a picket. As Crowe put it, “If a driver comes to collect stock, you can stop him and explain what you are doing, and it’s his choice [whether to cross the picket]...Back before [The implementation of the 1990 Act] you could sit down in front of the truck and it was his choice whether to run you over”.

On September 4th, it was announced that a possible resolution had almost been reached. However, this deal left workers far short of the “2+2” deal they were fighting for. Almost 150 days into the picket by this stage, Workers also felt left out by the fact that Shop Stewards had not been present to represent the workers' demands. On the morning of the seventh of September, workers had occupied several Debenhams stores, including Henry Street in Dublin and Patrick Street in Cork. Several arrests were made, and KPMG withdrew from the deal, saying “...we were minded to withdraw support for the indicative settlement put forward to workers last Friday. This decision was based on the reactions over the weekend from former employees and the likelihood that even if the proposal was passed by Mandates’ members, it would not be accepted by many of them...Following the actions of certain people overnight, it has now become clear that the offer is not acceptable to the former employees and others.” Speaking to The University Observer Crowe, who had been involved in the occupation, pointed out that she is fighting for a fair redundancy after 24 years working in Debenhams, so the money for workers in this deal was not acceptable.

The Supreme Court granted an injunction to the provisional liquidators Kieran Wallace and Andrew O'Leary of KPMG on October twelfth, ordering an end to “unlawful” attempts to prevent stock being removed from stores. This was just days before the announcement of Level 5 restrictions nationwide. It is hard to see liquidation as an essential service, although the pickets have cautiously continued.

During a protest on the fifth of September, Crowe highlighted that as well as corporate greed from Debenhams and KPMG being responsible, many workers regard the failure of the government to fully implement the recommendations of the Duffy Cahill Report as part of the problem. The report, commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Enterprise, is “An expert examination of legal protections for workers with a particular focus on ways of ensuring limited liability and corporate restructuring are not used to avoid a company’s obligations to its employees”, according to the Department's website. It sought to prevent a situation similar to the closure of Clerys, where many workers were given thirty minutes notice of their redundancy.

Debenhams staff have received vocal support from most opposition parties, and many shifts on the picket and protests are also well attended by young activists including, but not limited to, members of People Before Profit and representatives of UCDSU. When asked what she thought of the young volunteers who were helping man pickets and attend protests, Crowe said that they had “No fear for the future of the country” and that they looked forward to seeing the picketers “as TDs and councillors”. She explained that hopefully, this movement was going to help show workers what power they have. Between the widespread support for the picket, the likelihood of many more redundancies in the near future due to recession and Covid-19, and support for militant labour politics from opposition parties, she may be right.

Crowe ended her interview by saying that anyone looking to learn more or volunteer to help could go to their nearest picket and ask, and that they are always welcome for people looking to volunteer or learn about Trade Unions.