In recent days, Sadhbh Mac Lochlainn spoke to four women workers at one of the many Debenhams pickets around the country. We mark 150 days of these pickets by publishing their inspiring voices here, followed with a shop stewards’ statement unequivocally rejecting as “pitiful” a deal made between their union and the liquidators.
One hundred and fifty days on, the workers are tired but steadfast as ever on the picket lines at the Henry St. Debenhams picket in Dublin.
Like their counterparts all over the country, they are resolute in the knowledge that they will not be letting the stock move. Over the last week, Debenhams workers have come out in force, marching to the convention center to show the government and Debenhams that they are here to stay. Their commitment to manning the pickets 24 hours a day is as strong as ever.
Lisa Murphy, who worked in Debenhams for sixteen years, starting in 2004, is clear: “No way we’re walking away. There’s no way. And there are no trucks coming in here either.” These sentiments are echoed by all the workers on the picket line. Janet Ainscough, who started working for Debenhams in September of 2000, agrees, “There’s no way I would stop now and that’s just it. I did it from day one and so I’m not going to stop now.”
The reason why these women are refusing to budge is because of the way they have been left on the scrap heap by the company. After their years of loyal service, Debenhams announced to the workers – via email – that it would be closing its doors in Ireland permanently, adding that they would not be getting paid the redundancy, outstanding holiday hours, or last weeks of wages they are owed.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I thought somebody was messing, but that was just the way it was. We were treated appallingly,” Janet explains.
Workers in Debenhams and across the country were shocked to learn that in the event of a liquidation they had very little protection whatsoever. Liz Brennan, who worked in Debenhams for twenty-four years, said:
“After Clerys we thought they couldn’t do that to us, they couldn’t do that again. But what we didn’t know at the time was that that legislation [Editor: the Duffey-Cahill report, see more here], was still sitting in a drawer after four years, never signed. We were all convinced, look what happened in Clerys, they said never again so it will never happen to us. That’s what we all thought, until we then discovered, no sorry, it was never even passed. And the same government who left it sitting in a drawer for four years are back.”
This liquidation was quite clearly a tactical one. What we see here is an intentional move to make workers redundant in order to maximize the company’s own profits. COVID-19 was the perfect cover for Debenhams to follow through on their plans to pull out of Ireland and leave workers of over 20 years with nothing.
The exact maneuvers which led to the tactical liquidation of Debenhams in Ireland are murky. In 2018 Debenhams UK, the parent company took out a loan of two hundred million making Debhenms in Ireland and Denmark the only guarantors on the loan. After four weeks, Debenhams in Denmark was removed from this contract leaving Ireland as the sole guarantor of a two hundred million loan. Once this loan was defaulted on it was Debenhams in Ireland that folded and the workers here who took the hit.
Marie Murphy who worked in Debenhams for the last 20 years was told only three days before being made redundant that her job was safe:
“I was absolutely shocked, I couldn’t believe it … yeah, it was just shocking when I read the email. Three days before on the sixth of April, Debenhams UK went into administration. So we received a message to say that it was going into administration over there but we were okay over here. Then on the ninth of April, we received our email to say that Debenhams Ireland was gone.”
Only four days after being sent home for the lockdown employees received the email to tell them Irish Debenhams was gone. Of course, now the workers are aware that everything which happened was pre-planned. Only days before the shop closed up for the lockdown many of the workers were made pack up the valuable stock and leave it in the loading bays, being made to think of course that this was in case of looting over the lockdown when, in reality, they were being made “dig their own graves”, as one woman put it. Marie shared her experience of the last days in Debenhams:
“We had been packing up stuff at the weekend, a few bits and bobs, mainly at the weekend and the week before cosmetics had been getting packed up. Then on the Monday, the guys were asked to pack up all the valuable stock, like Levis and Wrangler stock.
“‘Cause we were closing because of the pandemic we were made feel that packing up was to protect in case the shop was to be broken into. I was in on the Tuesday, and we were only in for a few hours and we were just finishing up packing up and bringing up the stock to the stock room and things like that. But they knew that they were going to close down the whole time, 100%.”
In hindsight, it is clear to everyone that this fiasco was a planned and profit-driven liquidation, but at the time most workers felt that they would be back to unpack within a few weeks.
The news about the closure of Debenhams in Ireland came out of the blue for all the workers. Janet who worked in Debenhams for twenty years and would have been retiring soon shared how devastating that news was for her:
“I only had a few more years left then I was going to retire and that would have been it. So I haven’t got a hope of getting another job now, I haven’t got a hope. I mean who’s going to employ me?”
Many of these women on the Debenhams picket lines would have been looking at retirement in the next few years. Many, like Janet, were not just denied an early retirement – they were not even given the redundancy payment that was agreed in their contracts. And a large number feel that they will not be able to get the jobs or pay they deserve in the near future:
“I could go to Penny’s tomorrow and I would work the arse off myself but I’d only be getting 10.50 an hour. This is how bad retail has gotten. Years ago if you were in retail and you went from one job to another and you had that experience, you were paid accordingly. That doesn’t happen now. And you wouldn’t catch any other job in the country doing that. Like if a minister went from the minister of health to the minister of business, which he probably knows nothing about, does he take a wage cut? I don’t think so. So why should we have to?”
Those are Liz’s words, and Lisa chimes in in agreement: “Like we would have to do probably 30-35 hours a week to get what we only did for 20 hours. And I’m not moaning about the fact of working. I would work full-time tomorrow, that’s not the problem. It’s the prospect of only getting ten euros an hour after having all my experience. You can’t pay your mortgage on that, you can’t live off that. I mean vodka and diet coke is 8.80 now.”
Lisa’s final comment breaks the tension and all of a sudden the workers burst into fits of giggles. The comradery at the picket lines and the fun is not to be overlooked. While these workers are fighting not just for themselves but for all who will come after, they continue to find reasons to laugh, never allowing the injustices that they have faced to defeat them.
Liz sums it up perfectly, “On the positive side of it all, it’s been great craic. Have to say we’ve had great fun on the picket lines. I mean we have had ups and downs and we have sat here the four of us some nights we’ve cried, we’ve laughed, you know what I mean and everyone has been a great support to each other. And some of us who might have worked in different departments or whatever have become great friends on the picket lines because we do it together.”
Janet agrees, “The solidarity with the amount of people and the support that we are getting from the socialists and People Before Profit. All the volunteers who come in and stay with us especially overnight, it’s just amazing, we would have been lost without them.” And as a final call for continued support, “If there’s anyone there that’s willing to support us, you’re welcome.”
The workers on the pickets at Debenhams know that they are on the front lines of what is to come. COVID-19 has left us facing one of the biggest economic downturns globally and what happens with the Debenhams workers is going to set a precedent for what workers in Ireland can expect over the next few years.
“Our fight is everyone’s fight, because what is happening to us today, and I know it’s said in slogans but it’s true, what’s happening to us today could be happening to anyone tomorrow.” says Marie. “It’s bigger than Debenhams now it’s bigger than just us. We’re fighting for the Duffy-Cahill and to protect all workers.”
It is the determination of the Debenhams workers which shines through again and again. After a hundred and fifty days they may be tired but they are still ready to fight, and they will not be going anywhere soon.
All the workers on the picket are committed to fighting this out until the end.
As Lisa says, “We’re going to stick it out and we’re not going to walk away and if we still have to be here at Christmas, we’re still going to be here”.
“Liz will cook us our turkey dinner right here,” Marie chimes in and the group devolve into laughter once again.
Editor: On Friday (04/09/20), just as this piece was due to be published, RTÉ broke the story that Mandate and the liquidators had reached an agreement. While some have tried to spin it as a good deal, the workers lost no time in denouncing it for what it was: a paltry deal and a slap in the face to those who have stood on pickets for 150 days.
The Debenhams shop stewards, who have been kept out of negotiations, have released an unequivocal statement in response. We republish it here in full:
Debenhams shop stewards in all 11 stores are united in our disgust of and opposition to the derisory redundancy offer proposed by KPMG liquidators and Mandate Trade union. The shop stewards have canvassed opinions among workers on the picket lines in the last 24 hours. The words used by all are ‘insulting’, ‘derisory’, ‘pitiful’.
These are the workers who since being sacked 150 days ago have actively lobbied politicians, campaigned, marched and maintained the pickets at all hours and in all weathers to prevent the asset robbery of the company and removal of the stock. It was our struggle which has successfully held up the sale of the stock and has been our bargaining power.
Our demand has been very modest, for 2 weeks statutory redundancy and 2 weeks enhanced — the latter to come from the stock and online business of the company that we helped build and in line with what was promised to us by the company in 2016.
Instead, what is on offer from the liquidator to Debenhams workers is a pot of €1million. (This would be in two installments, with the latter dependent on stock sales). It is less than the €1-2 million offered to Clerys workers, despite the Debenhams workforce being 7.3 times larger. Based on even matching the Clerys settlement, Debenhams workers should be getting between €7.3 and €14.6 million.
The following are Case study estimates for how much workers would get from the current proposal:
Case study 1 – a full time worker (37.5hrs) with 20 years service would get €1923.75
Case study 2 – a part time worker with 18 years service would get €554.
When you consider the real value of the stock, workers are being offered a pittance. Staff estimate from stock takes they did in the 11 stores and from other reports, the value of the stock is around €25 million. Even going for a much lower realisable value often cited by KPMG, Debenhams workers are being robbed. In addition, the online business had a turnover of €30 million in 2018 and estimated sales of €40-50m as online sales rose due to all stores closed.
We have also seen quoted in the media that workers will be given 33% of the net profits made on sales of stock. Nobody can know how much this will amount to after rents and all other overheads are paid and with the potential for the stock to be sold in a fire sale.
The impression is being given also that there are developed plans to reopen three stores with jobs for sacked workers. These would not be Debenhams stores, of course, and workers would not be rehired on former terms and conditions. More likely long-standing workers would be on minimum wage if hired.
At no time throughout the 150 days have shop stewards been involved or kept in the loop on the negotiations taking place. We do NOT think these proposals are worthy of being put to a ballot. They fall way short of our agreed demand of 2+2 and are considered an insult by strikers who have put in the work to keep the struggle on the agenda. We call on Mandate not to break with customs and practice of the national shop stewards team being consulted about what should go to ballot.
Instead, we believe the union should reject this offer from KPMG and we should discuss how we increase the political pressure on the government parties, who we held discussions with, and who made promises.
We are disgusted that the new government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens would stand over an offer to us that is less than the Clerys workers got, despite all their expressed sympathy for our situation.
KPMG have stated that they can only act on instruction of the government. Fianna Fáil told workers good progress was being made in the talks. Now suddenly we are told that precedents can’t be set. Precedents such as revenue forgoing tax owed to pay workers redundancy. But precedent has been broken right throughout the pandemic, with all sorts of new laws and regulations brought in. Why can’t workers get a fair deal?
In conclusion, all 11 shop stewards will be writing a letter to Mandate general secretary calling for this derisory offer not to be put to ballot. We intend escalating the pressure, particularly on Fianna Fáil and the Taoiseach in the coming weeks.