- 13 May 20
Irish workers at Debenhams were cut adrift when the company decided to close its Irish stores – and told that they should ask the State for the redundancy payments they were due. In response a campaign has been launched to dissuade customers from buying from Debenhams online store…
A new campaign is calling on Irish consumers to stop shopping with Debenhams after it was revealed that the company’s online store is continuing to trade in Ireland.
The “Devil Wears Debenhams” campaign, is organised by trade union Mandate. It urges people to stand in solidarity with employees of Debenhams in Ireland, who were fired last month. They are asking customers to re-evaluate their decision before they purchase items from the company’s online store.
During April, Debenhams fired nearly 2,000 of its employees via email stating that the company’s eleven stores in the Republic were “not expected to reopen” – even after the coronavirus crisis subsides.
The pandemic which accelerated a plunge in retail sales at Debenhams prompted the company to liquidate its Irish operation. What people may not have understood is that they also transferred all of the company’s assets to the UK, in an apparent attempt to avoid having to make redundancy payments due to staff here.
In the early 2000s, trade union Mandate had negotiated a deal with the company, which obliged it to offer redundancy benefits to laid-off employees. Apparently that commitment has now been reneged on, under the cover of a response to Covid-19.
COLD AND CALLOUS
Jane Crowe, a Debenhams employee of 24 years, told Hot Press that her former company is still generating profit in Ireland through online sales – yet it is refusing to pay redundancy benefits to the workers.
Speaking to Hot Press, Jane Crowe described her former company’s approach towards loyal employees as “cold and callous.”
Jane Crowe, who used to work at Debenhams’s Henry Street store, in Dublin, said that during the week their employment was terminated, employees had been reassured by management. "We were told that we would be okay – that the UK company was going into administration, but Ireland was holding itself."
Debenhams had previously said that it was preparing to enter administration for the second time in a year to safeguard the business from potential legal challenges by creditors during the coronavirus crisis.
As a result, Jane Crowe said, the redundancy announcement email, came as a shock.
"Oh, my God. It was devastating. Especially, to receive it in just an email as well,” she told Hot Press. “We were so devastated to find out that the company was still trading in Ireland, and the money was still coming in.”
BANK HOLIDAY LAYOFFS
Debenhams employees were made redundant immediately before the start of a bank holiday weekend. Dave Gibney of trade union Mandate told Hot Press that being laid off on a bank holiday is a growing trend.
“When you lay off people on a bank holiday, there is no one around to assist them on the issue,” he said. “It’s happening more and more frequently, and it’s not just retailers. Maybe they think the union isn't around, or there aren't as many journalists working. By the time the mainstream media picks it up, the story is already dead sometimes.”
Dave Gibney said that he was particularly disturbed when he discovered that Debenhams had transferred all of its Irish assets to the parent company in the UK, in the process evading all of their financial responsibilities toward their workers.
“The fact that they transferred all of their assets to the UK, before they did this, shows us that it was a pre-ordained move,” he said. “They knew what they were up to and wanted to shift responsibility. It’s very cynical and opportunistic to not live up to the obligation of paying their staff the negotiated and agreed redundancy package.”
Meanwhile, Jane Crowe said that her former company had advised her to seek a redundancy payment from the Government.
"They said they wouldn't be paying us anything,” she explained. “The application should be made to the Irish Government for the taxpayers to pay us statutory redundancy."
The Redundancy Payment Acts of 1967-2014, give a minimum entitlement to a redundancy payment for employees who have been made redundant by a long-term employer. The law, however, states that an employer must “act reasonably” when dismissing employees in a redundancy situation, before advising them to avail of State-funded redundancy schemes. Acting reasonably is generally understood to require employers to consult with workers before making a decision, as well as considering all alternative options.
Employees are also entitled to a minimum of two weeks’ written notice of redundancy. Logically, therefore, Debenhams should be liable for unfair dismissal if challenged in court.
Debenhams did not respond to Hot Press’s request for comment.
A MINORITY LENDER
Bank of Ireland – alongside businesses Barclays, Silver Point Capital and GoldenTree – were part-owners of Debenhams’s Irish operation.
Dave Gibney said that the Irish bank could step up to the plate, and shoulder the company’s responsibilities toward its workers.
“Bank of Ireland, a bank that is already bailed out by the Irish taxpayer, is helping to make a thousand of retail workers in Ireland redundant and not even giving them the money that they are due, passing the obligation on to the Irish State instead,” he said.
In a statement issued to Hot Press, a spokesperson for the Bank of Ireland clarified the bank’s position.
He said that “as a long-term lender to Debenhams” the bank was “very disappointed” with the company’s sudden termination of operation in the Republic. He added, however, that the bank held only a very small number of shares in the company.
“Covid-19 is having a detrimental impact on households and businesses across the world,” the statement read, “and Bank of Ireland will continue to do everything possible to support our customers and communities through these challenging times. Bank of Ireland is a minority lender to Debenhams and holds a small (c5%) shareholding in the company. This shareholding was acquired as part of a debt restructuring in 2019, where the Bank extended further lending to Debenhams in an effort to support its viability.”
Dave Gibney said that Mandate are not trying to dictate to people not to shop with Debenhams. Rather, he said, "it is trying to remind them to shop with their conscience."
“Personally, I won’t be shopping with Debenhams ever again,” he stated. “This is a company that is leaving its workers – who in some cases were with them for over 40 years – to fight with the Irish State, for their redundancy entitlements. We are trying to educate people that these companies are well-protected, and that they don't treat their workers with even a bit of dignity and respect.”
SUPPORTING WORKERS IN BANGLADESH
In a positive turn of events, this week, former Irish employees of Debenhams leapt to the aid of the company’s 69 Bangladeshi workers, after the British firm terminated their contracts without paying their wages.
In mid-April, the team who were working at Debenhams' Liaison Office in Dhaka, Bangladesh became aware of the termination of their contracts, which happened while their country was in lockdown.
Their Irish colleagues heard the news, after Bangladeshi workers posted a video about their plight on social media. ITV News also reported, last week, that it had seen correspondence from Debenham’s administrator to Bangladeshi suppliers, demanding a 90 per cent discount on garments orders already at UK ports.
It was revealed that Debenhams had cancelled – and is withholding £53 million worth of payments on – orders from Bangladeshi suppliers.
When this news emerged, in a spirit of international solidarity, jobless Irish Debenham’s employees set up a crowdfunding campaign to help. The GoFundMe Campaign has successfully raised almost €15,000 so far, for the Bangladeshi workers.
None of which, unfortunately, augurs well for the future of jobs in retail in Ireland. Jane Crowe told Hot Press that she is not very optimistic when it comes to future employment prospects.
“There’s going to be a lot of unemployment after the pandemic,” she said, “and so I think it will be hard to get work. I’m a lone parent. I have a son who goes to college, and I have a mortgage, so ideally I need to find a job that would actually pay my mortgage.”
• Main pic of a workers' rights protest in Cork, by Shamim Malekmian