Joe Biden, credit: Gage Skidmore

Sep 14, 2020 | Ireland, Opinion | 0 comments

Debenhams Protestors’ Plight Proves Workers Need More Rights

Joe Biden, credit: Gage Skidmore
John Hunter

Written by Atakan Uzun

The struggle of Debenhams workers is not isolated, it is linked to workers’ rights, lack of union recognition, sick pay and bargaining power.

10min Read
John Hunter Mobile

Written by Atakan Uzun

10min Read

The struggle of Debenhams workers is not isolated, it is linked to workers’ rights, lack of union recognition, sick pay and bargaining power.

Just over five months ago, 2000 workers lost their jobs as Debenhams announced that they would be shutting up shop in Ireland. Some of these workers had given the company many years of service including under its predecessor, Roches Stores. This, along with the recent issues surrounding sick pay in meat factories, clearly highlights the lack of workers’ rights in Ireland.


Who would have thought that the outlook for the Debenhams workers back in January would be so grim? Who thought they would be organising sit-in protests in the Cork and branches of the outfit? Nobody would have even considered that thought, but five months after losing their jobs Debenhams workers are still fighting for fair redundancies from Debenhams and KPMG – the liquidator for the company. This harps back to the start of April when Debenhams announced that it was ceasing operations. 

After the closure of Vita Cortex in 2011 and Clerys in 2015, we thought that we would never have a situation like this ever again, where so many  jobs could be lost with little government intervention. However, it came like an erupting volcano to Debenhams workers who would be without a job because their company greedily took advantage of the global pandemic to shut their doors, with the government doing little to step in to save their jobs.

The government could have nationalised the company to save jobs but this was never considered. A valid excuse for the government was the global pandemic, where they had to introduce the wage subsidy and the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) in order to pay workers who temporarily lost their jobs. They could have mediated during negotiations with Debenhams and could have acted as a supportive party to the Debenhams workers, who they claim to support. The matter of fact is that they did neither of these things. 

One of the first acts of the new governmental coalition between Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party, notwithstanding Eamon Ryan’s nap during a vote on an opposition motion to increase the minimum wage and workers’ rights, was when the coalition voted against giving the Debenhams workers statutory redundancies. This denied them a basic income which would have been nothing special, but was a disgraceful act by the widely acclaimed historic coalition. 

This was certainly unpleasant for ordinary Debenhams workers, and highlights how out of touch this historic coalition is with ordinary people and particularly with the most important people of our country, the workers. It clearly illustrates the dearth of workers’ rights along with the lack of government action in the event that a company shuts up shop in this country. Despite the protests, which have escalated to sit-ins in recent weeks, the Debenhams workers have still not got a resolution from either Debenhams, KPMG or the government.. Their actions highlight the need for the repeal of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act. 

A key area needing improvement is the entitlement of workers to sick pay. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many meat plant workers who had symptoms of COVID-19 felt they had to come into work because they weren’t entitled to sick pay, with some resorting to paracetamol to reduce their temperature. The most negative impact of this was felt on people in direct provision with many asylum seekers working in this area. This highlights the need for legislation to provide for the statutory requirement of sick pay in all workplaces, whether in the public or private sector. This could be done through a constitutional amendment which the people could vote on. All government parties should commit to implementing statutory sick pay and making it a constitutional right. This will be a significant step and milestone in the area of worker’s rights and their entitlement to fair conditions of work.

The implementation of the Duffy-Cahill Report would be another positive step. This was undertaken by then Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton of Fine Gael and Minister for Business and Employment, Ged Nash of the Labour Party. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation stated that this aimed to review situations where there were significant assets completely separated from the employer, and areas where employees can be better protected. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions argued in 2016 that in order to avoid another situation like the closure of Clerys, any government should implement the recommendations outlined in the report. However, despite constant pressure on the government since the release of the report, no government has implemented its recommendations. Due to this lack of action the government cannot abdicate its responsibility for the situation of the Debenhams workers. Fine Gael as part of the previous government could have ensured that there would not be another situation like this. As time goes by, it is looking highly unlikely that this report will ever be implemented. 

Finally, the recognition of Unions needs to be improved upon. Whilst a person does have the right to join a trade union under the Constitution and have this recognised, an employer has no legal obligation or responsibility to negotiate with the union should a dispute arise. This allows an employer to have the upper hand in a trade dispute and means that they can use intimidation tactics in order to promote an anti-union atmosphere in such a workplace and to engage in anti-worker practices. For example, in a Dáil exchange in 2018, Paul Murphy TD of RISE enquired whether there are any plans for the introduction of mandatory trade union recognition legislation, to which Pat Breen TD of Fine Gael replied that there are no such plans. This demonstrates the anti-union attitude that exists in Ireland’s established parties, perpetuating a situation where employers have no obligation to recognise trade unions. Under any government in the future, legislation must be brought forward to explicitly enforce employers to recognise trade unions and have more worker-friendly practices. Workers should also be given the opportunity to bargain for their rights with their trade unions, who should support them in a dispute with their employer.  

The actions of the Debenhams workers over the last number of months has been hugely inspirational and has mobilised many working class people across the country. Their plight highlights the need for the implementation of the recommendations of the Duffy-Cahill Report; the imposition of an obligation on employers to pay their employees sick pay; an insurance of mandatory trade union recognition and; the immediate repeal of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, which should be replaced by an act that prioritises worker’s rights. 

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