We are resuming with Private Members' business. I know it is causing some confusion that we are approximately two and a half hours ahead of schedule but that is not my fault.
Debenhams Ireland Redundancies: Motion [Private Members]
That Dáil Éireann:
— over 1,400 workers in Debenhams Ireland faced mass lay-offs when the United Kingdom parent company announced it would no longer support the Irish subsidiary in April of this year;
— the company has not negotiated with the workers’ representatives since and that liquidators have been appointed;
— the workers have a collective agreement with Debenhams that guarantees an enhanced redundancy payment package of two weeks statutory plus two weeks;
— initially workers were informed that the company had liabilities of around €19 million, but this estimate has since been revised upwards to around €225 million;
— Debenhams Ireland had entered an arrangement as co-guarantor of a major debt facility of around £200 million utilised by the UK parent company in 2019;
— the Bank of Ireland is part of the consortium that includes Barclays bank and two United States-based hedge funds that triggered this process and this consortium are now effectively the owners of Debenhams UK; and
— workers are fearful that the insolvency of their company has all the hallmarks of a tactical insolvency which will leave them as creditors with nothing other than statutory entitlements;
further notes that:
— five years ago, Clerys department store closed and its workers were made redundant with no notification by their company;
— the Oireachtas responded by commissioning a report into the causes of the closure, and the manner in which workers were abandoned;
— the subsequent ‘Expert Examination and Review of Laws on the Protection of Employee Interests when assets are separated from the operating entity (Duffy-Cahill report)’ made several suggestions for legislative reform to ensure workers would not be abandoned in any subsequent closure or liquidation process; and
— to date the Oireachtas has failed to legislate for any of the areas examined by the Duffy-Cahill report;
— the failure of past Governments to legislate to protect workers in these situations; and
— the actions of the consortium now in control of Debenhams and specifically the role of the Bank of Ireland, which were bailed out by the Irish State in 2008;
sends a message of support to the Debenhams workers for the stance they have taken to protect their livelihoods;
— the plight of the Debenhams workers and the decades of service many have rendered to their company;
— the threat of mass redundancies facing many other workers in many sectors and industries in the coming period; and
— in the case of Debenhams, the State is the first creditor that the liquidators seek to settle with on amounts due for various taxes and rates owed;
calls on the Government to:
— legislate as a priority to strengthen the rights of workers facing redundancies and layoffs, and specifically to legislate to:
— reorder the priority afforded to workers as creditors in any liquidation process by amending section 621 of the Companies Act 2014;
— amend the Protection of Employment Act 1977 to increase the compensation for workers from four weeks to two years in cases where their employer has contravened sections 9 and 10 of the Act; and
— amend all appropriate legislation such as the ‘Protection of Employment Acts’ as called for in the Duffy-Cahill report to ensure that where agreements for enhanced redundancies have been negotiated with workers, these are honoured as preferential creditors in any subsequent liquidation process; and
in recognition of the failure of the State to act in this area and to protect workers like those in Debenhams, calls on the Minister for Finance, Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Taoiseach to:
— notify the liquidators in Debenhams that the State will forgo its priority as a creditor and instruct the liquidator to use funds realised instead to pay the enhanced redundancy payments agreed between the Debenhams workers and the company;
— immediately initiate negotiations with representatives of the Bank of Ireland to ensure the workers receive the full collective redundancy package previously agreed with the Debenhams company.
I am sharing time with Deputies Gino Kenny and Mick Barry. The treatment of 1,400 Debenhams workers by Debenhams, a very large company that continues to make profits in this country through online sales and which continues to operate in the North of this country and operate and make money in Britain, has been nothing short of despicable. We have heard descriptions from workers about how, essentially, they were tricked by the company using the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic to suggest that various things it was doing, such as stocktaking in stores and movement of goods etc., were related to the Covid-19 issue. These had nothing to do with Covid-19 but instead were related to a tactical liquidation, using the cover of the pandemic to dump these 1,400 workers, most of whom had worked for the company for decades. These workers gave loyal service in Debenhams stores all across the country but were dumped in the most cynical way.
Our motion seeks the justice that should have been given to these workers if previous Governments had acted to tackle similar actions in this country over recent years. The most recent case is that of Clerys, which had a similar liquidation process and where workers were dumped. Before that we have the examples of La Senza, Vita Cortex and Thomas Cook. They are just the cases I am familiar with, although there are probably others that people can remind me of. Time and again, and particularly in the retail sector and department stores, retail workers have been treated in this absolutely outrageous way.
After the Clerys dispute, the Duffy-Cahill report was produced, which suggested that there should be a reordering of the priority of creditors in cases of liquidation in order to ensure that workers could not be treated in this way. This would ensure workers would become priority creditors when it came to the liquidation of assets, companies would not be able to run away with assets and other people could not take priority over the workers who generated the wealth, as Debenhams workers have done over many years. Successive Governments have failed to do this. Five years after the Clerys dispute, this has not been done and the Debenhams workers find themselves in their current position.
The cynicism of Debenhams goes on as clearly this was orchestrated well in advance of Covid-19. This company has significant assets and we only need to know what is in the stores around the country to see that it has tens of millions of euro in assets. It also has an online business. Essentially, the company tried to take the assets off the balance sheet by making Debenhams Ireland co-guarantors in a £200 million debt taken out by Debenhams UK. This is just an accountancy manoeuvre deliberately designed to lay the ground for the liquidation, leaving the workers with nothing.
Quite rightly, the workers have not accepted this. There is no doubt Debenhams hoped workers would be shell-shocked and demoralised and in the context of the pandemic that they would just take this lying down. To their eternal credit, this inspiring group of workers, mostly women, have stood up, fought for their rights and refused to be treated in this despicable way. They are now in their 104th day of protest and at Henry Street and other stores round-the-clock pickets are being mounted to prevent the liquidators, KPMG, from moving in and taking those assets when those assets should be liquidated to the benefit of the workers.
The Taoiseach said he had great sympathy for the workers. When I and others raised this in the past number of weeks, he told us he was greatly sympathetic and the treatment of Debenhams workers was disgraceful. He said he would look at legislation going forward but there was nothing he could really do. That was the implication for this particular group of workers. In this motion we are making a concrete proposal that can be achieved. It is something that arose from a meeting of the workers and the liquidator, when it became clear the Government is a priority shareholder. Therefore, the Government can waive its priority and instruct KPMG to give a better redundancy deal to the workers in the form of the four weeks of pay per year of service and ensure they are the top priority in the liquidation of assets.
The workers do not want tea and sympathy but tangible action to give them the justice they deserve. We also want the legislation to ensure similar cases do not arise in future with similar groups of workers. The workers are marching here later this evening because they were not aware of the change in the Dáil schedule. If we want to send a message of solidarity and hope to those workers, the Government should accept this motion and drop its amendments, which other speakers will address.
I commend the Debenhams workers who have been on strike for more than 105 days through very difficult circumstances because of the public health emergency. Anybody who has visited the picket line would be inspired and amazed by their determination over 14 or 15 weeks. It has been a very difficult time but their solidarity and support for each other is inspiring for anybody who supports the trade union movement. It is everything that is good about working class people. It is about standing together, shoulder to shoulder, when they are up against it.
These workers are fighting for a fair redundancy. Some of these people have worked with Debenhams for over 25 years.
Can the Minister of State imagine how he would feel if he was treated like that having worked for an employer for 25 years? He would feel very aggrieved. That is the reason the workers have been on the picket line since April. They will win.
The Dáil is almost like a bubble. It passes legislation to protect workers and so forth but in one night in 2008, the banks were completely guaranteed in respect of all their debts, yet legislation that could protect workers in redundancy such as the Debenhams workers has never been passed. That leaves a very bitter taste in people's mouths. It is ironic that the Bank of Ireland has a 14% share in Debenhams so it has an obligation to the workers to give them a decent settlement and a decent redundancy.
As a member of the Government, the Minister of State should call in members of Bank of Ireland and ask them what their obligation is to the Debenhams workers. He has the power to do that because in 2008 the Government bailed out the banks to the tune of €4.6 billion. I will repeat that figure - €4.6 billion. It is an incredible amount of money. Taxpayers in this country have been on the line for that money yet workers are screwed every time they try to stand up to their employers.
The Debenhams workers are an inspiration, not only to the trade union movement but to the working-class movement. It is up to us to pass this motion today to send a message to those workers that they can and will win.
This debate is taking place in the National Convention Centre, in Dublin's north inner city. We are just down the road from Liberty Hall, the headquarters of James Connolly and Jim Larkin, and the locked out workers of 1913. We are a little more than a mile away from the scene of the world-famous Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike of the 1980s, and now we have another historic strike taking place here in Dublin's north inner city. Striking workers, overwhelmingly women, are picketing Debenhams stores at 11 separate locations across the country - in Cork, Tralee, Waterford, Galway, Limerick, Newbridge and Dublin, including here at the company's flagship store in Henry Street. There is no doubt that this is a historic strike. We have only to look at the timing. It is the first strike of the coronavirus era. In terms of the duration, it will be 15 full weeks tomorrow. This strike is a litmus test of how working people will be treated in the age of Covid-19.
I want to say at the outset that the motion put before the House tonight by Solidarity-People Before Profit is a very moderate one. A radical motion would call for the 11 stores or, at the very least, several of them, to be taken into public ownership to save jobs. Instead, this motion focuses on the redundancy issue and serves to support the demand of the workers themselves that they be paid four weeks per year of service rather than the bare statutory two weeks that is currently on the table. By the way, Debenhams workers have a collective agreement with the company, which is seven years old now, for four weeks. It is an implied condition of employment and it should have the legal force of a condition in a contract of employment.
In 2003, the Canadian professor and legal theorist, Joel Bakan, made a documentary movie called "The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power". In that powerful anti-capitalist film, Bakan shows the eerie similarities between the personality of the modern-day corporation and the personality of a psychopath - callous disregard for the feelings of others, incapacity to maintain human relationships, deceitfulness, incapacity to experience guilt, etc. If Mr. Bakan ever decides to make a sequel, I would respectfully suggest that he might look no further than the case of Debenhams for his case study, a company which sacked its workers by email, stripped its Irish operation of all its assets, tried to do a moonlight flit and pay its workers nothing, and then reopened 122 stores across the water, keeping the extremely profitable online business going, and still refusing to pay its workers a single red cent.
This motion is not just about the role of Debenhams. It is also about the role of Government and the State. The House will be aware that the State has a 14% stake in Bank of Ireland and that Bank of Ireland is part of the consortium of banks which forced the closure of the 11 Irish stores. The State also has its liquidation laws, framed by Governments led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which fix the liquidation process and make it a rigged game, and force the workers down near the back of the payout queue. The workers understand full well that playing the liquidation game by the rules as they are laid down will in this instance leave them with nothing but the bare statutory minimum payments. That is why they are correctly and on the basis of a 97% strike mandate refusing to play by the rules of the game, blocking the removal of stock from the stores and taking the position that they will only allow stock leave when a just settlement is put in place for the workers. Where are we now? It is a Mexican stand-off. The liquidator cannot get the stock out of the shops and no end of threats, whether it be injunctions or anything else, will change that basic position.
This is a stalemate which I believe can only now be broken by Government intervention. The Government, led by the new Taoiseach, says there is very little it can do but it is contradicted by no less a source than the liquidator himself. Last Wednesday night, the RTÉ website published an article about the Debenhams dispute and in the article it quoted extensively from the liquidator. Among other statements he stated: "Unless the State voluntarily instructs the liquidator to allocate supplementary cash to the workers, there is nothing that can be done". To be clear, he is not saying that there is nothing that can be done. He is saying that there is one thing that can be done and one thing only, that is, for the State to give an instruction.
The State is owed many millions of euro from the liquidation process - €5 million for the Revenue, unpaid rates, etc. The State should use its leverage through Bank of Ireland to force a rethink on Debenhams UK about the four weeks' redundancy, but if it cannot succeed in doing that, the Government must then resolve the issue itself by issuing the necessary instruction. Furthermore, there must never again be a scandal such as that we see at Debenhams or the one we saw in Clerys just five years ago. Legislation is urgently needed to protect workers' rights in liquidation situations. Companies must be prevented from putting all their assets into one company, keeping it open and then, having split the company, putting all its losses into another and shutting it down. Companies must be prevented from going into liquidation during lockdowns and workers must no longer be put down near the back of the queue in a liquidation situation. Instead, they must be top of the list.
I made some points earlier about the corporate personality of Debenhams. I want to make a point about the personality of the Debenhams workers whom I have met and got to know over the past 15 weeks.
I have been an activist in the working class movement in this country for 40 years. My experience is that many of the best qualities and characteristics of working-class people emerge in times of collective struggle - determination to fight injustice, solidarity among those who have been robbed and a sense of humour. I have seen these qualities in abundance among the women on the Debenhams picket lines. I saw them in the workers on Henry Street who had done a night shift. They used their social media outlets to help a man who visited their picket line to find his son, who he said had fallen on hard times and gone missing in the inner city. They were successful in helping that man.
I have seen those qualities in the Debenhams workers in Cork. They made a marvellous gesture of solidarity with their fellow workers in Bangladesh, who have been cast aside and thrown into poverty by the company. The workers in Cork set up a fundraising campaign and raised more than €15,000 for those workers. I could go on. These women deserve fair play. They deserve justice. They deserve a clear-cut decision and a clear vote from Dáil Éireann with no ifs, ands, buts or amendments designed to wreck the motion. That is what they deserve when we debate this motion tonight and vote on it tomorrow evening.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:
“extends its sympathy to the employees of Debenhams Ireland who have lost their jobs given the liquidation of the company;
acknowledges the distress and worry that this is causing for employees of Debenhams Ireland, and the added difficulty at the present time when mobility remains restricted;
— Debenhams Ireland is undergoing a court-supervised liquidation, and that the case remains before the High Court and accordingly is sub judice;
— a company cannot merely assert that it is insolvent, it must apply for an official court liquidation and as such the liquidation will be under the supervision of the Irish courts system;
— the Companies Act 2014 already provides for a court power to order the return of assets improperly transferred in appropriate cases;
— the Workplace Relations Commission continues to be fully operational and available to any interested parties who may require it;
— the Government’s job loss protocol has been activated for employees of Debenhams Ireland putting in place all available supports and information for workers, including on welfare entitlements, job-search assistance and upskilling needs and opportunities;
— the Protection of Employment Act 1977 imposes a number of obligations on employers who are proposing collective redundancies;
— in respect of redundancy entitlements, it is the responsibility of the employer in the first instance to pay statutory redundancy and other wage related entitlements to eligible employees;
— the Social Insurance Fund provides an important safety net for employees in situations where the employer cannot pay statutory redundancy due to financial difficulties or insolvency; and
— the State will guarantee statutory employment rights to the workers of Debenhams;
recalls that in response to concerns in earlier cases, the then Government, in 2016, commissioned two reports in parallel: the 'Expert Examination and Review of Laws on the Protection of Employee Interests when assets are separated from the operating entity (Duffy-Cahill Report)' in March 2016, and the report of the Company Law Review Group (CLRG) on 'Protection of Employees and Unsecured Creditors' in June 2017;
recognises the need for the Government to have a strong focus on job creation, training and reskilling in the July Stimulus announcement and forthcoming National Economic Plan, given the number of people whose employment has been threatened or lost as a result of the Covid-19 public health emergency;
further notes that the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation will meet with Debenhams worker representatives; and
endorses the intention to immediately commence the Programme for Government’s commitments regarding employee protections by:
— reviewing whether the current legal provisions surrounding collective redundancies and the liquidation of companies effectively protect the rights of workers;
— reviewing the Companies Act 2014, with a view to addressing the practice of trading entities splitting their operations between trading and property, with the result being the trading business (including the jobs) goes into insolvency and the assets are taken out of the original business; and
— examining the legal provision that pertains to any sale to a connected party following the insolvency of a company including who can object and the allowable grounds of an objection."
I welcome this opportunity to discuss these important matters and their impact on more than 1,000 Debenhams workers and their families, as well as the suppliers with stock in those outlets. The focus of tonight's motion is the employees and everything they have been going through for more than 100 days since they got that devastating news. We all recognise the very difficult position they are now in. As a country we are in difficult times. Among other things, this was one of the first groups of employees to be hit hard by the fallout from Covid-19. There is recognition throughout the country of their plight. People support them and there is a great recognition of the important role that those involved in retail have played in recent months. Most people now have a greater recognition of the service they provide.
I have particular sympathy for the Debenhams employees because I have met a lot of them over the years. I have shopped there many times myself. I am not sure about others, but I have certainly been there on many occasions and they always provided a top-class service and were very pleasant people to deal with. The Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and I found the same thing when we had a chance to meet the employees' representatives and some of the employees themselves. We met Ms Valerie Conlon and Ms Carol Quinn earlier today. As some of the Deputies have mentioned already, both Valerie and Carol have been working there for decades. Valerie worked there for 24 years and Carol, who is herself from Cork, has been there for more than 30 years. They are very committed.
Those representatives put the case very strongly today and we had a very successful and solutions-focused meeting to discuss what we can and cannot do. The Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and I listened to them intently. We were very pleased to meet them and understand where they are coming from. We want to see what the Government can do in response and how the legislation can work for them, or in some cases cannot work.
I wish to express my sympathy and that of my Government colleagues for those Debenhams employees and for all those who have lost their jobs as a result of this. We all recognise that Debenhams staff have given loyal service for many decades. It is an awful shame that this has happened to them. Today one could see the pain they are going through. Having given such loyalty, they really feel let down. We also got that sense from the workers we met before today. It could be seen in their eyes that they felt totally let down after giving dedicated service for many years. It is important that we have this conversation to see how we can help them. We must focus on solutions.
We recognise that this is a difficult situation for them and their families. I am acutely aware of the timing of this, occurring as it has during the Covid-19 pandemic, a difficult time for many people in the country. The Government is working in a co-ordinated way to support everyone who faces the prospect of losing his or her job and all of those who have already lost their jobs in recent months. The job loss response protocol was immediately activated for the employees of Debenhams. This brings together all available supports and information for them, including information on welfare entitlements, job search assistance and upskilling opportunities. It is important that this work continues even though a discussion is ongoing. The workers have their own picket, but it is important that all the Departments and agencies of the State step up immediately and do their jobs as quickly as they possibly can.
Regarding job losses and efforts to sustain businesses more broadly, it is hoped the Government will publish the July stimulus plan this week. That will strengthen the Government's effort to save and create jobs and save businesses on behalf of the taxpayers of this country. As outlined in the programme for Government, the July stimulus will be followed in October by the national economic plan, which will be published on the same day as the budget. Many colleagues of all parties will feed into that. They have already contributed suggestions and ideas for legislation as well as for the July stimulus plan to be announced this week. In October, we will set out a long-term approach to restoring employment and the economy. As the Minister of State with responsibility for employment affairs and retail businesses, I am quite clear about the serious situation that sector will be in. It has gone through as difficult a time as any sector in this country, with many changes affecting it. That has now become a lot more serious. We have a lot of work to do where the retail sector is concerned. We must work with the sector, its representative bodies and its employees. It is a very important sector with great opportunities, on which we must expand.
All of these economic initiatives must be centred around employment, retaining jobs wherever we can, creating new ones to replace jobs that might be lost, and providing a strong focus on quality employment with good terms, conditions and work-life balance. The qualifications and retail excellence built up by someone who has worked for more than 30 years were quite clear from today's meeting with the Debenhams employees. They have a skill that is transferable to many other sectors. I have previously been a Minister of State with responsibility for skills, research and innovation. I am keenly aware of the skills of those working in the retail sector.
I recognise that the workers of Debenhams have immediate questions and concerns on the redundancy payments they will receive as a result of the liquidation of this company. Again, we met officially with the representatives of the Debenhams workers to hear their views and concerns. It was clear to us from that discussion that the engagement between the liquidator, the company and the union representing employees has not yet concluded. They are working very closely together, having engaged in previous situations. It is important to note that the State will ensure that the statutory employment rights of the Debenhams workers are recognised. There is quite strong legislation behind that, as we discussed here last week. The information and customer service of the Workplace Relations Commission can provide information on employment rights and equality and industrial relations matters. That body provides a very good service. I also recognise that the Debenhams liquidation is court supervised and remains before the High Court. These legal proceedings will need to conclude and it is essential that nothing prejudicial is said here tonight. We have borne that in mind when moving the Government's amendment. The resources available for distribution towards debts owed to employees and to other creditors, including State creditors, have not yet been confirmed by the liquidator. This work is ongoing.
I acknowledge that this is an exceptionally difficult situation for Debenhams employees and for the many small business owners who are suppliers to the company and have stock tied up in this. The Debenhams employees and their union recognise those concerns also. They are waiting for answers and are understandably concerned. Anybody running a small business now is in a difficult situation. I am aware that the Debenhams employees have raised the issue of collective redundancies. The redundancy payments to be made to employees in a collective redundancy situation are a matter between an employer and employees in the first instance. The employees had negotiated additional terms for themselves in recent years, and rightly so. However, the Social Insurance Fund provides a safety net for employees in situations where an employer cannot pay statutory redundancy payments due to financial difficulties or insolvency.
Several legitimate questions about the rights of employees when a company goes into liquidation have been raised tonight and in recent weeks. These are particularly pressing issues given the number of people whose employment has been threatened or lost as a result of the Covid-19 public health emergency. Responding to this, the Government made several important commitments in the programme for Government. Specifically, the Government will review whether the current legal provisions on collective redundancies and the liquidation of companies effectively protect the rights of workers; review the Companies Act 2014 with a view to addressing the practice of companies splitting their operations in advance of an insolvency so that the assets are taken from the original business; and examine the legal provisions around sales to a connected party following an insolvency, including who is entitled to object.
The Tánaiste and the Department are asking the Company Law Review Group, CLRG, to examine these matters as a matter of priority. That work has been ongoing for some time.
When it concludes, the Government will be ready to act and to propose legislation where it can achieve improvements.
It has been noted that the Duffy Cahill report of 2017 made a number of recommendations on the protection of employee interests, with a focus on specific cases where interests are separated from the operating company. That report was sought by the former Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the former Minister of State, Deputy Nash, when they were in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. The Company Law Review Group also made recommendations in 2017 regarding the protection of employees and other unsecured creditors. Both of those sets of recommendations will be reconsidered as part of the work the Government is commencing. It is important work, not least given the more difficult economic conditions we face and the unwelcome prospect of more business failures and job losses into the future.
It is necessary and right that we look to see how the statutory framework can be improved to better protect workers' rights, as the Government is doing. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we have a strong legal framework for dealing with insolvency, and it includes provisions to deal with improper actions. Under the Companies Act 2014, a company cannot merely assert that it is insolvent. It must apply for an official court liquidation, which will be under the supervision of the High Court. The Companies Act provides, in section 608, that liquidators or creditors of an insolvent company can, in appropriate cases, obtain a court power to order the return of assets which have been improperly transferred. The Act also provides, under section 559, that a related company may be required to contribute to the payment of debts owed by the company being wound up. These and other statutory provisions, and the associated civil and criminal penalties, provide an important deterrent to improper actions by companies facing an insolvency. It is worth recalling that the Duffy Cahill report found that "the provisions of the Companies Act 2014 that are already available do not appear to be in need of amendment, but more in need of use".
As I have outlined, there is a strong and comprehensive statutory framework already in place for dealing with insolvency. No such framework can be a panacea for the cost of business failure for workers and other debtors, including other businesses, but the legal framework does provide clear remedies and sanctions where there is illegal conduct, as well as rights and protections for employees where collective redundancies are in view. By way of the commitments in the programme for Government, we will be looking to see how and where this framework can be further improved for workers, and we will consult all Members in this regard. Across all fronts, the Government will maintain a strong focus on job creation, training and reskilling in the July stimulus and the forthcoming national economic plan. These are the Government's priorities and commitments to workers at Debenhams and across our economy. I commend the Government amendment to the House.
The Minister of State's response to our motion and the Government's amendment to it are an insult. The amendment is an insult to the workers who have been taking action for 104 days. What the Minister of State has offered is more tea, sympathy, crocodile tears and generalities about what the Government is going to do for workers in the future and what it is going to do in terms of legislation. There is nothing - not a word - about what it is going to do for the workers who are facing this crisis right now, as set out in our motion that supports them. The Minister of State said one thing that I agreed with, which is that these workers really feel let down. That is correct, but they feel let down not only by the company but also by the Government.
The Government's hypocrisy in this matter is utterly sickening. I participated in a Zoom call with the Taoiseach, before he assumed office, and some of the Debenhams workers six or eight weeks ago. I stood in front of Leinster House with Debenhams workers when they met with the Taoiseach, before he was Taoiseach. Just like on that Zoom call, he nodded knowingly and sympathetically and said he appreciated their circumstances and would do what he could to help them. I was on a protest and picket line last Saturday with a Fianna Fáil Deputy who was presumably there to support the workers. Now, however, when the Government is being asked to do something to support them, it is not willing to do anything. Nothing whatsoever is being offered, only a continuation of the empty crocodile tears, tea and sympathy. The hypocritical behaviour of Government party Members pretending to support those workers when in opposition, as we saw with the Taoiseach before he took office, compared with their behaviour now they are in government is utterly disgusting. They are saying now that there is nothing they can do and, in so doing, they are implicitly and in effect backing the company. It is a disgrace.
The Minister of State said that such situations are a matter between the employer and the employee in the first instance. For how long does the first instance go on in this case? When the workers have been out for 15 weeks, are we not beyond the first instance? Are we not into a situation where the State must act to avoid workers being treated in this scandalous way and to avoid a green light being given to every other company in the country to do exactly the same? Will the Government continue to sit on its hands and allow workers to be treated in this way?
I was in the Dáil Chamber on Tuesday when another issue was raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett, in response to which the Taoiseach was at pains to say that the Deputy was always saying the Government is about businesses. His Government is not about the businesses, the Taoiseach told us, but about the workers. He really emphasised that. This evening, however, when the Government has a very simple chance to do something for a group of workers who are being treated abysmally by their employer, it is not going to do anything about it. I say the Government is not about the workers. It is about big businesses and facilitating legislation that allows big businesses to get away with murder.
The truth is that the law is allowing Debenhams to proceed with what is clearly a tactical insolvency. The company is abusing the laws that exist in this country to load the debt of the overall operation onto Debenhams in Ireland and then walk away. The assets are effectively going to the British operation while the debts sit with the Irish side, meaning the workers, in effect, get nothing from the company. At the same time, the Minister of State tells us he is preparing, in the autumn, to cut the pandemic unemployment payment of these workers, for whom he says he can do nothing, from €350 to €300. If the Government gets away with that, it will cut the payment to €250 and, after that, it will be down to jobseeker's benefit and means testing. That is the attitude of this Government to workers.
What is happening in this case demonstrates a lot about the nature of the establishment political parties and who they represent, which is big business and the 1%. It demonstrates a lot, as Deputy Barry has explained well, about the real character of corporations and how all the talk about multiple stakeholders and caring about society is nonsense. These companies care only about their profits and they are willing to throw their own workers, who have been loyal to them for decades, onto the scrapheap to maximise those profits. What is happening also says a lot about the State machinery in this country. The recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report were not implemented and these companies are legally able to operate in this way because the State machinery also operates in the interests of the 1% of big business and big corporations in this country. To me, it makes a general point about the need to end this sort of State machinery, to have a State machinery that operates in the interests of ordinary workers, to have an economy that is owned and controlled by ordinary workers and to put people's needs first so that these sorts of behaviours do not happen over and over again, as is, unfortunately, likely to happen in the coming weeks, months and years as the economic crisis deepens.
One very important thing stands between Debenhams, the Government, the State machinery and what they all want to achieve, which is for the workers to go away, do nothing about the abysmal way they have been treated and accept their fate. Standing in the way of this are the heroic workers who have taken action, who sit on 24-hour pickets in Tallaght, Cork, on Henry Street and all around the country to stop the stock being taken out. This is a fight for all workers. The picket lines at Debenhams shops throughout the country are the front line of a struggle about who is going to pay for the coronavirus and who is going to pay for the economic crisis that is coming. Are companies, the Government and the State machinery going to succeed in loading that cost onto workers and making those workers pay or will the Debenhams workers succeed in forcing the company and the State machinery, at the very least, to pay something towards their redundancy? If there was any justice in the world, this would be a battle to ensure the company is taken into public ownership and that the jobs continue because they are needed for society.
I have confidence in the power of the workers to achieve that.
The workers are creating history through the action they are taking. If they score an important albeit partial victory, and I think they can, it will be a reference point in the months and years to come. When H&M workers or other retail workers are faced by a company taking similar action or by a jobs massacre, which is what is coming, they will ask each other whether they remember what happened in the case of the Debenhams workers. They stood up together, they fought and they won something. Bob Crow, the former leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers in Britain, who tragically died, said that if a person does not fight, he or she cannot win. If a person fights, he or she has at least a chance of winning. That is currently being demonstrated by the Debenhams workers.
Workers generally, trade unionists and those on the left - those who truly support these workers rather than pretending to support them as is done by Fianna Fáil and others - need to be mobilised to join the picket lines to defend the stock and prevent the liquidators from removing it. A victory for the Debenhams workers will be a victory for all workers. However, a defeat for them would be a defeat for all workers. We need to redouble our efforts and the pressure we are exerting.
It is clear that the Government will vote down the motion tomorrow. That is fine. The workers have seen it all before. They have seen the behaviour of the Government and they will not be demoralised by it. We need to continue to build the pressure, to put it up to the liquidators, the State and Debenhams and ask them whether they will try to get the stock past workers' pickets. To achieve that, we need to establish a broad support group involving other trade unionists and left organisations. The workers will have the final say on what happens in the context of the conduct of their strike, but involving those different groups would facilitate having the maximum number of people on the picket lines and build towards a substantial demonstration to show the broad public support that exists.
The Government can use and abuse its majority in the House, as it did in the context of the Committee on Standing Orders and Dáil Reform earlier, but can it defeat the workers? Can it force the stock through a line of militant workers and their supporters who refuse to accept that being done? This is the front line. It is a question of who will pay. The Debenhams workers are leading the way. I salute them for saying that workers should not pay for the coronavirus and economic crisis. Rather, we should make the companies pay.
I thank the Deputies for tabling the motion. I wish to salute the Debenhams workers and their representatives from Mandate Trade Union. It is not lost on these or any other workers that the Government gets excited, interested and passionate about particular things. Its members get very passionate about money for themselves. The Cabinet happily debated legislation which would give the super junior Ministers a few more bob. That is not lost on people. They know what is going on. They see who the members of Government are, how they behave and what is important to them. Workers' rights are not important to the Government, but that does not matter because workers' rights are important. They are important to Sinn Féin and other Opposition Deputies. We will ensure that workers such as the Debenhams workers are not forgotten or left behind. That must not be allowed to happen. It is not a good look for the Government when there are newspaper reports revealing that the Cabinet discussed another pay increase for people who are already very well paid. It is not a good look for the Government when Ministers are squabbling over which of them will be allocated an aide-de-camp or another Garda driver. Government party Deputies have expressed their disappointment at not being chosen to take a step up. None of them referred to ability. None of them stated that they wanted the job because they could do it better than anyone else or they could bring particular qualities to it. Rather, they spoke of their region, town or parish being disappointed. None of them referred to merit. That is not lost on people. They see what is important to the Government. The job of the Opposition is to put the case for the workers to the Government.
Some of the workers have 34 years of service. Workers who have spent 34 years working side by side have been through everything together. They probably saw each other off to get married and welcomed each other back from maternity or paternity leave. They went to each others' engagement parties. They have shown each other photographs of their children or grandchildren. They have worked together for 34 years.
The workers operated under a collective agreement. Deputies are covered by collective agreements that are honoured by our employer. The Debenhams workers negotiated their collective agreement. Anyone who has negotiated such an agreement, as I have, will know that they always involve compromise. I acknowledge that some Deputies do not like the word "compromise", but it is exactly what is needed to negotiate a collective agreement. There is give and take. The workers gave, but now they see that their collective agreement is worthless. We must not just shrug our shoulders. We have seen situations such as this before. I refer to Clerys, TalkTalk, La Senza, Paris Bakery and now Debenhams. Every time it happens, there is collective agreement that somebody should do something and that it must not be allowed to happen again. We must draw a line in the sand.
Sinn Féin previously tabled legislation that was not opposed by the two big parties that are in government together. I have sought leave to introduce legislation on this issue. I sincerely hope that when leave to introduce it is granted, those parties will not oppose its passage but rather work with us to ensure that it is passed and in order that we do not find ourselves back here discussing a similar situation and having to shrug our shoulders to another group of workers, tell them it is terrible and offer an apology.
In the meantime, we need to back the workers, work with them and do all we can. That means the Government must do all it can to ensure the workers get a resolution to their dispute. A ballot is required to take industrial action and only a ballot will conclude it. The workers will only accept a ballot that they deem fair and just. No industrial action goes on forever. I am sure the past 104 days feels like forever for the Debenhams workers, who are mostly women. It has been a very long time in unprecedented circumstances, but they are strong and determined. We must be equally strong and determined to ensure that we do right by them and that we use whatever power and influence we have and whatever mechanism is at our disposal to ensure that a satisfactory resolution to their dispute is found such that they can ballot to end the industrial action, get what they are entitled to and move on.
We do not need more reports or reviews. Although I am currently speaking to the motion, we do not need more talk on this issue. We know what needs to be done. The current situation is just not right. I salute the workers. They are on the picket lines 24 hours a day to try to keep the stock in those stores because that is all they have left. The message is clear. They have significant public support. They are incredibly determined and they will see this dispute out to the end. I call on the Government to do all in its power to assist with the dispute.
I thank my constituency colleague, Deputy Barry, who tabled the motion. There are 480 Debenhams workers and concession workers in Patrick Street, Cork who have lost their jobs and another 250-plus workers in Mahon Point who were told by email that there jobs were gone. The behaviour of Debenhams Ireland and its parent company in the UK is nothing short of scandalous. If we do not draw a line in the sand for these and for other workers, we will be failing them.
Yesterday, the workers asked me to put their voice forward here today and let other Deputies know what they are feeling. They stated that in these unprecedented times and in the context of companies going into liquidation, there should be a longer period during which people can make proposals, look into the situation and challenge the liquidation.
I refer to the issue of the Government getting revenue back from the company.
The workers should be the first in the line of creditors, not the last. In my maiden speech in the Dáil, I spoke about the Debenhams workers and their rights. In this country, when workers go looking for rights they get the law and the law is bad for workers but good for big business. We have a chance to change that and to let big businesses know that greed is not the god they think it is. If people have worked hard and helped a company to make a profit, they should be respected and given a fair redundancy. Two weeks of service on top of statutory redundancy is a very reasonable amount for any worker to look for. I want the workers' voices to be heard here today and for them to know we are talking about them and listening to them.
On the attitude of the liquidator, KPMG, the workers believe it has not listened to them. The liquidators have put them last and their head office is not fighting for them or their rights. It is time for solutions. I ask the Government and all Members to stand with the workers because they deserve fairness. This is not just for Debenhams workers; it is for all workers.
I thank those who brought forward this motion. I have had the honour of standing with the workers of Debenhams, who have been on strike for over 100 days in Blanchardstown and at some of the other stores, including Henry Street. It must be remembered that many of these stores that people are picketing today were trading profitably prior to the Covid-19 crisis, which forced the closure. The vulture groups still have their hands on the stores in Britain and the highly profitable Irish website. I am not sure whether the Minister of State knows this but going on strike is not an easy route. It is tough and often soul destroying. These people are hard workers who have done their best. I have spoken to many of them and they loved working at Debenhams. They have built up lifelong friendships with their co-workers. There is a real sense of sadness, loss and anger about what has been done to them.
The time for sympathy and words has passed and it is time for action from the Government. Unfortunately, an amendment to the motion has been tabled which completely dilutes its spirit. The Taoiseach expressed his sympathy and said he supported the Debenhams workers and that they had been treated in a very shabby way. He said that the company's behaviour was unacceptable. We listened to him say those words. However, as usual, those words have not been followed up by action or deeds. I was struck by the words of Ann Peppard, the shop steward in Blanchardstown, outside this Chamber last week. Ann has worked in the retail sector for 26 years and is now facing working on the minimum wage. She said sympathy will not pay her bills or mortgage, will not put food on the table or help get her kids through college.
The shocking thing about this situation is that we have seen it before time and time again. People before me have stood in similar positions and have said similar words. That is utterly unacceptable. We can do something. In the short term, I urge the Government to change its mind and support the motion. Deputy O'Reilly has proposed bringing forward a motion on the Duffy Cahill report. When that is brought forward, I urge the Government to support it. The workers need their support now more than ever. The Minister of State talked about supports and stimulus packages. The stimulus package is what we need now for workers because they are facing a really tough time following this Covid crisis.
I thank those parties that brought this motion. Sinn Féin fully supports the Debenhams workers and it is public knowledge that many of our representatives have stood shoulder to shoulder with these people. Some Members have already mentioned Sinn Féin's proposals for changing the laws and closing the loopholes in this. It was mentioned that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil supported this but then all of a sudden, when people are not watching, they bury it in committee. There it lies. It has happened so much.
This Private Members' motion is very simple. It is about workers' rights and entitlements. It is as simple as that; rights and entitlements in 2020. I have looked at some of the Government amendments. The original motion is obviously what we are going to support. It is the typical Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael kicking the can down the road and this magic word, "review". For those who are not used to this word, it breaks down to "bury it under the piles of violins so you will not see it." There is a human factor behind this. Thousands of families have been affected. We have all been contacted by people who are distraught, broken and deflated but the one thing they are full of is fight. We have to commend their spirits. There is a precedent here if we start battering the people who are working the hardest and paying their taxes. Sometimes one goes to work and while one probably hates one's job one must do it because of necessity. People who go to their job each morning and who love it and can live in it are very lucky. People who are standing up for their rights are being persecuted because the Government has not got the gumption, the courage to enact proper legislation that protects our own citizens. We do not need reviews. We know the workers are not being protected. I politely encourage the Minister of State to withdraw his amendment tonight and not to be the laughing stock of the country. It is the first term of a new Government of the 2020s and what have we got? They crap on the workers of this country, disrespect their rights and entitlements and all one gets is "Sorry".
After the last economic crash, a lot of companies treated their workers disgracefully. We saw the Vita Cortex workers in Cork and their heroic struggle and protest. We saw the Waterford Crystal workers, who were dragged through the courts for their pension entitlements. We saw it with Game, La Senza and many more examples of workers who were treated in a shameful way. Then along came Clerys and it was clear again that corporate greed was at the heart of what happened. There was a tactical insolvency involving multiple entities of companies whereby companies could separate their assets from their responsibilities to employees. It became obvious to many more people that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael especially had no regard for workers' rights. We see it in the programme for Government. There is barely a mention of workers' rights despite all of what went before. It was quite rightly described as tea and sympathy by Deputy Paul Murphy earlier. All the tea and sympathy was rolled out for the Clerys workers. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Deputies and Ministers were stepping over themselves to meet them yet they did precious little to make sure it did not happen again. The previous Government even set up a task force and a group to consider what should happen. What came out of that was the Duffy Cahill report. What did the Government do? It sat on it and did absolutely nothing. None of the recommendations has been implemented.
I introduced a Bill in 2017 that never got beyond Second Stage because the Government blocked it. Clerys workers were up in the Gallery at the time and they were supportive of the Bill because they did not want what happened to them to happen to anybody else. They said and we said it would happen again unless the Government legislated but of course, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael refused to do so. Then, along came the Debenhams case with workers again being treated in exactly the same way with what could be described as a tactical insolvency. Ministers then roll in and say it is a matter for the company and nothing to with them. It has everything to do with the Government because it allows these companies time and time again to operate in this way, to treat workers shamefully, and it will not legislate. Almost every single Bill that has been brought before the Dáil by the Opposition over the last ten to 15 years under successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments to improve workers' rights has been rejected.
There are no collective bargaining rights in the programme for Government, nothing on tactical insolvency, nothing to improve the terms and conditions of employment for ordinary working people because the Government simply does not care. I am sick of the tea and sympathy. It must come to an end. I support the motion. It is shameful that the Government has not supported it and has tabled an amendment which, as others have noted, seeks to muddy the waters.
I thank Solidarity-People Before Profit for tabling this important Private Members' motion on the treatment of the Debenhams workers. Unfortunately there is a feeling of déjà vu. We have been here before more than once, where the Dáil discussed very similar circumstances to those faced by the former employees of Debenhams. Not long ago, outrage was expressed in the Dáil about how badly and how cynically the workers of Clerys were treated when it was closed down when we probably made very similar points to those we are making here this evening. We must ask when this will stop. When will there be a time when there cannot be another Debenhams, Clerys or La Senza? What will it take for the Government to take action to prevent this happening again? When will the Government enact laws, regulations and reforms that will protect employees in firms such as Debenhams and ensure that loyal workers with years of service behind them are not treated with such cynicism and disregard by their former companies? Debenhams' behaviour towards its former employees has been nothing short of arrogant and contemptuous in refusing to engage with them and in its cynical use of loopholes to dodge both its moral and ethical responsibilities to its workers. Debenhams is also contemptuous towards the State which will be left with substantial statutory liabilities to the former employees by not giving its former employees a single cent. We should remember that Debenhams Ireland, especially Debenhams Henry Street, performed better and were some of the most profitable shops in the group. They were more profitable than shops in the UK, yet it chose to close the Irish section. What the former Debenhams employees seek is neither complicated or unreasonable: to put in place the recommended reforms of the Duffy Cahill report to protect employees who face similar circumstances in future and proper redundancy of four weeks per year of service, as agreed. This is not an unreasonable request considering that Debenhams Ireland is guarantor of a debt facility of around £200 million. The moneys made by the disposal of the enormous amount of stock held by Debenhams Ireland should be ring-fenced for paying for the workers' redundancy packages as well as the €5 million owed to Revenue. Well done to the workers for the resilience and commitment they have shown in fighting for their rights and those of their comrades. They have done us all proud.
I thank Solidarity-People Before Profit for bringing the motion to the floor of the House. It gives us all an opportunity to speak on this issue and for the Government to respond. Like many parties, the Labour Party has met with the Debenhams workers. Senator Sherlock and I met with some of these courageous workers and their representatives in Mandate trade union today.
It is important for Irish society, and what is sometimes called "middle Ireland", to understand the magnitude of a decision which a worker makes to engage in industrial action of the scale taken by the Debenhams workers. Sometimes I do not get the sense that middle Ireland or people who have not grown up in the tradition of labour or activism in industrial disputes understand how huge a commitment it is to engage in this type of industrial action or protest. It is draining, exhausting, it occupies every waking moment of one's brain. It sucks in the entire family and is all a person can possibly think or talk about. Initial camaraderie and even gaiety during the first days when there is a huge level of collective endeavour can sometimes wane. One can imagine the mental strain on a person 100 days into a dispute. All people grasp for is a tiny bit of hope that they might get somewhere.
The problem is that we have been here before. As others have observed, it happened with Clerys and with HMV. The market has no conscience. We cannot expect the market to self-regulate, or to deal with the level of conscience, it will not because the market does not have one. It deals in profit and money, and those they employ to make the money are expendable.
As a result of the Clerys scenario, my colleague, Deputy Nash, and Deputy Bruton commissioned a report for the Government which was published in 2017. It was written by Ms Nessa Cahill and Mr. Kevin Duffy. The Duffy Cahill report made recommendations and it is only reasonable that the Government should implement them so that, regardless of how we get through this together, we do not have another one of these incidents in a number of months time, because this is what businesses always do. They will manipulate whatever mechanisms they can and screw over whoever they possibly can for their own short-term gain. Someone who has worked for 25 or 30 years is only expendable.
I met with the workers today. They spoke of their exhaustion, but also how resolute they are. I want to remind Debenhams, which is possibly watching this debate, that we see them. We see the Government and its response but we know that Debenhams.ie is still trading. I ask Irish consumers to use their power as consumers when it comes to clicking on Debenhams.ie.
The Tánaiste, who is the senior Minister, met the workers and their representatives in Mandate today. We support the motion, will vote for it tomorrow and we congratulate those who put it forward, but it is likely to fail because that is what happens in this over-and-back Private Members' business, where Government Deputies vote down Opposition motions. That is the way of it. However, based on the Tánaiste's meeting with the workers today there is a sense that there is a way forward. I appeal to the better nature of Government representatives. Rather than walking away from tonight's debate or tomorrow's vote and hoping it goes away, I ask them to use the goodwill of what workers and their representatives presented. The Government should continue in that vein and use the mechanisms outlined today which are at the Government's disposal to find a resolution to this issue. There is enough goodwill in Government to do this.
I appreciate those of us in opposition like to characterise Government parties in a particular way and we will do that. I have done it and will do it again. However, one cannot play politics with people's livelihood, lives and futures. If there is an opportunity for the Government to do something decent and right for these workers I ask that it please do so. If the Government does so, it should be commended. However, we cannot wait for the next Debenhams, Clerys or HMV to happen in a few months, as it inevitably will. Let us be as fair as we can. If the Government takes what was said today to the maximum of what can be done, it will be in sight of a resolution.
The workers are within sight of a resolution and it is something that we can all possibly be happy with. We cannot be happy that the legislative underpinning of industrial relations in this country allows this to continue to happen. We have to implement this report. If we do that, all of us can feel that we are achieving something rather than coming in, making a speech, walking out and feeling that we have done enough. That is the Labour Party’s position. Let us do the right thing for the workers and take the goodwill of today to the next stage. This can be done. I hope these words of mine are not repeated to me in a week’s time as if I am being incredibly naive. Next week or in ten days' time, I do not want to be seen to be incredibly naive because I jumped on the possibility arising from the Minister's decision to open a door for these workers. Time is short and August will be a dead month for politics and the media. The workers know the opportunity to have something done by the Government will last until the end of the month. I am pleading with the Minister, on behalf of these workers, to do the right thing in the next ten days and to ensure that when the Dáil returns, we can start the process of implementing the Duffy Cahill report and working collaboratively to ensure we do not have another Debenhams, Clerys or HMV.
I thank Solidarity-People Before Profit for moving the motion and acknowledge the representation it has given to the Debenhams workers in the past 100 days and more.
A couple of months ago, as the pandemic hit and we realised what its extent would be, it seemed we were all going to be in this together. The Government quickly introduced the pandemic unemployment payments to ensure people did not fall into poverty. We were protecting people. A couple of weeks later, Debenhams went into liquidation and the workers were let go. In this House, I watched the current Taoiseach, who was then the leader of the Opposition, send his regards and acknowledge the wrongness of the company's decision. I watched the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection highlight how great an injustice it was. All the parties met representatives of the workers and spoke about how wrong this was. This was all a case of tokenism and false gestures of solidarity and goodwill, because more than 100 days into this dispute, the Debenhams workers are still standing on picket lines in front the company's stores 24 hours a day to ensure stock cannot be removed. This is the only leverage they have despite all the mealy-mouthed promises that were made.
I heard it said on a radio programme that Debenhams is an institution. Debenhams is a company, not an institution, and has no particular relevance to the people of Ireland. The Debenhams workers, however, are incredible. One of the reasons public support for the Debenhams workers is so strong is that not only have some of them worked in stores for the past ten or 15 years, but I have known some of the Debenhams workers from the time of Roches Stores. What is happening to them is wrong and unjust. What these workers do not need are promises that action will be taken at some undefined time in the future. They need action to be taken now.
This is the second Wednesday in a row that we have sat in this would-be Chamber and discussed the issue of workers’ rights and how we can advance legislative protections and stand up for people who have always stood up for us, not just during the Covid period, but have always been treated unfairly by the State. The State acknowledges their work but never wants to pay them enough for it. It never wants to protect them in legislation, acknowledge the difficulties in their lives or seek to add the type of protections that would make their lives a little bit easier.
Similar to this evening, when we introduced a motion on workers’ rights last week, it was met with tokenism, gestures and commitments to do something in the future. A Government amendment diluted the motion and removed its essence and strength. The Minister of State spoke of what he is in favour of, which equates to nothing. Is this the line that will be drawn in this Chamber? We have groups, predominately of the left, which provide the first ideological divide in a Dáil, which is fine. If the dividing line is going to be between those who will stand up for workers and those who will not, I will be on the side of the people for whom it would be unconscionable to fall asleep in the workplace. I am on the side of those like the Debenhams workers who cannot go to sleep because they are standing outside their store 24 hours a day ensuring stock cannot be removed. I am on the side of the more than 160,000 workers who were living in conditions of poverty before the pandemic. Others spoke in Dáil Éireann about an Ireland of full employment but kind of whispered that despite full employment, many workers could not afford to pay their childcare costs and rent and were living in positions that were precarious. We are going to be on their side and if the Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael want to be on the other side, so be it. Let us have that divide.
There protection of workers' rights in this country is urgent. Debenhams is not the first of these cases by any stretch of the imagination. We have heard references to Vita Cortex and Clerys workers, and others. Covid-19 has accelerated something that would have happened in any event. I am a proud representative of the Dublin Central constituency which has a Debenhams store on Henry Street. I also take an interest in business in the inner city because that is where I grew up. We have all known for a long time that commercial footfall in Dublin Central as a whole was lessening and people were choosing to drive out to the shopping centres on the M50 or, worse for the employees, doing their shopping online. Tactical insolvency is being used to take advantage of that reality. If we do not legislate quickly, what is happening to Debenhams workers now will be happening all along Henry Street and Grafton Street. We will be in here again asking for something to be done and the Government parties, which have never really been on the side of the workers despite what they might say, will tell us all of the reasons they cannot do anything. Let us be honest, the only people they are backing are the powerful, the bigger businesses.
This issue is urgent and we are asking the Government to act. Its amendment to the motion is an awful tactic. Tomorrow, this House will vote against a motion that people put great effort into for no reason other than this smarmy tactic. This will be to the detriment of our democracy. What will absolutely not be to the detriment of our democracy is when workers realise they are being taken for a ride by these parties and stand up, organise, engage, act and demand their rights.
Last week, when we introduced a motion calling for greater protections we were told workers would get a living wage at some defined point. In much the same way, Solidarity-People Before Profit is being told that protections will be put in place at some point to stop tactical insolvencies. We cannot wait that long. Workers, particularly in the retail sector, were vulnerable before the Covid-19 pandemic. These are the same workers who let us into Tesco when we queued up outside, manned the tills and ensured supply lines remained open and the shelves were stacked in order that we could buy food. We need to protect them.
There is a simple ask here which sheds light on the interests served by those in power in this country. It is the Duffy Cahill report, which was produced five years ago when similar statements were made in Dáil Éireann. Five years later, despite the similarity between the gestures and rhetoric of the then Government and the current one, nothing has happened. That is the choice being made in this House tonight. We can choose how we act and respond and whose interests we will serve. At a minimum, let us enact legislation to implement the recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report. What is happening with Debenhams and happened previously with other stores will be accelerated. Other large employers are looking at this case and when the Oireachtas is seen to do nothing, that will be the reality on every high street in this country.
I call Deputy Shanahan. Cá bhfuil sé?
Anseo, a Chathaoirligh.
It is difficult to see the Deputy up there.
I am up in the gods. We had a short debate last night with the Minister of State and it is ironic that he and I are back here again so soon. The dignity, importance and value of work were mentioned in last night's debate.
Work delivers respect. It engenders self-respect. It provides financial independence to families. It allows people and families to craft a future for themselves and for their children, and hopefully to provide security in their old age. We have many forms of work in this country and retail has proven to be one of the more difficult areas. In work, there are always implicit contracts of give and take, the contract of exchange, fair work for fair value, and one can argue that the pay given to people is full recompense for what they have done in a day, but one must also add the summation of time and the intrinsic value that employees deliver to an organisation over time. Debenhams is one such organisation in Ireland. We know that there are people there working for extended years, some for over 30 years - a lifetime of work, in fact.
Debenhams in Waterford has been a significant employer for many years. It has not been without its struggles but would be seen as a linchpin retailer. It was the linchpin tenant up to now in the City Square Shopping Centre, providing employment directly and for concessionaires too. It was well supported in Waterford city. It had previous administration difficulties some years ago when workers and the city rallied. I hold here my own Debenhams loyalty card that I got four years ago to show solidarity and support to the workers in Waterford.
The south-east region has the highest regional unemployment in the country. Waterford as a city has the highest unemployment of any city in the country. Debenhams was a valuable workplace for many people and brought much pride to the city. I am astounded, to be quite frank, with "the tactical insolvency", as someone else here said already, that has taken place with this company. I got an email the other day telling me my number of loyalty points and that I can cash them in online. I will not be doing that. I will not support this company in what it has taken and what it has done to the people it has employed.
We need to look again at the enshrinement of employment respect within company law. It is certainly not there at present when a company can avail of this process, as we have heard in the past. Last night, I spoke to the Minister of State about administration light, the protection that should be afforded to small SMEs to keep them clear from speculative administrators who would look to conduct asset-stripping and force companies into administration. The reverse of that is also true. One can also have speculative asset-stripping, which has taken place here, and the movement of funding through two companies in two different jurisdictions. As we have heard, the smaller part of the entity which was saddled with the debt has ultimately become a liability and insolvent because of that debt. That is not fair and I hope, as we spoke about last night, to see fairness in this programme for Government. The Minister of State and I spoke about this yesterday.
"Working class" has been said here a number of times. I do not like that phrase. I think it is a pejorative term that is used too liberally in this House. There are many Deputies in this House and in the Seanad who do not know what working class means. All we know is Irish people working in Ireland. It suggests inequity and division where there should be none. I believe that now is the time that we must signal change in this area. Last night, I mentioned dynamic leadership, innovation and radical reform. Now is the time for the Government to show this resolve and signal, whether a person is a front-line, mid-line or back-line worker, that the Government has that person's back. I believe a resolution to the Debenhams situation can be found. Where there is a will, there is a way. I hope that the Government can resolve and close these loopholes in company law, and treat these vulnerable workers equitably and fairly. It is maybe time that we looked at something like mandated employee trusts in such organisations to ensure that employees in the future are not left quite literally holding the baby and nothing else.
When I grew up in Limerick, at the time Roches Stores had a unit there. I remember as a young lad that the first escalator in Limerick was in Roches Stores. It was a treat to go in and to go up and down this escalator, as it was the first one. Roches Stores ceased business and Debenhams took over. Debenhams workers, some of whom were also Roches Stores workers, had as much as 40 years of service to Limerick. All they got was a text sent by Debenhams, saying thanks for all their help and that it would not be coming back after the pandemic. That is what Debenhams thought of 40 years of service by Limerick people supporting Debenhams in Limerick.
At the moment, around the country, there is €50 million worth of stock in Debenhams stores. To give the Debenhams workers two weeks of redundancy pay would cost €13.5 million, not to mention that there was €50 million in the Debenhams Ireland account the day after it sent this text, and it has just disappeared into a UK account. It had the money to pay the workers their redundancy. When Roches Stores was there, it offered six weeks per year to Roches Stores workers. When Debenhams took over, it was to honour this, but the Debenhams workers knew and they went back to Debenhams to say they would take fewer weeks if Debenhams would work with them and give them their redundancy. Debenhams did the same thing that it did to the Government and all the people of Ireland. It stuck up the two fingers to Irish people.
Social media is a powerful thing and we should be using it to contact everyone that we know in the UK and in Ireland and, like Deputy Matt Shanahan said, let us stop Debenhams from making dirt out of all Irish workers after the service they gave. Let us go worldwide and hit Debenhams online to let it know that the Irish people will stand up for the Debenhams workers. They had been on picket lines for 100 days up to last weekend and I spoke to Debenhams workers today. They are going to continue to stand there. It is now time that Ireland stands with the Debenhams workers and for Limerick to stand with them. Let us start something on social media to let Debenhams know that Limerick will not take it and that Ireland will not take it.
I am here from Tipperary. We do not have a Debenhams store but we stand in solidarity with the Debenhams workers. I agree with the motion tabled by Solidarity-People Before Profit tonight and I support them. The way ordinary workers are treated is truly shocking. A fair day's pay for a fair day's work should be the motto. Most SMEs that we were talking about yesterday and today, with regard to the Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Bill, look after their workers, their workers respect them, and vice versa. There has to be respect for workers. One must support them. Ní neart go cur le chéile. We cannot have companies such as Debenhams and many others, some of them home-grown and not English like Debenhams, including flagship co-operatives, not treating their workers well. This situation at Debenhams cannot be allowed. I stand with Deputy O'Donoghue from Limerick. We will stand with these workers and ask people to support the workers, who have been on the picket line for 100 days. Money can be transferred out of accounts and that is why I do not like some of the big supermarkets that do not even bank their money here. Debenhams had bank accounts here but now it does not. We must do something with legislation to try to stop this moving and stripping of assets. Where are the accountancy firms?
How are the accountancy firms here standing over it? These are not the ordinary accountancy firms one might find in any rural town. They are some of the biggest and brightest, and they have been here right through the financial crash. They have been supporting and benefitting from work for NAMA and every side of NAMA. However, here we are and they walk on the ordinary people, the ordinary man or woman whose day's work must be respected. People must now vote with their feet and ask friends and colleagues, many of us have family and friends in England, to ensure this does not happen and that Debenhams does not blackguard workers in this way. We are worse here, however. Our successive Governments are in hock and are in bed with big business. They will not challenge big business and this is wrong. We had it with the banks also. The money is going once again to the pillar banks, which are not functioning. We must have decent legislation that respects the rights of workers. As I said earlier, it must be a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.
I am not going to attack the Government here tonight. I will plead with the Government. The week before last I went to the Debenhams workers in Tralee where Debenhams has a branch and where many people from Kerry have worked and have given the best years of their lives to Debenhams. Those people asked if I would go back to Dublin and ask the Government to support them. This is a very ordinary and humble request from people who have paid their tax and who every week on their pay cheque have seen tax deducted at source if they had done overtime. They paid every contribution that was asked of them. They gave hour after hour doing their job, respectfully, giving the best years of their lives. I met very nice people on the picket line who have given decades working for Debenhams. To think that at the end of it all they cannot be treated properly, while at the same time the company is continuing to trade. If the company had gone bust and there was nothing left, or if it was a company that had gone wallop, then one could say the well is dry and one cannot get blood from a stone. However, that is not the case in this instance. Money is there that could treat these people properly. We need the Government and legislation to protect these workers and workers in other situations from this ever happening again. It is awful to think of people having to give so much time on the picket line. They are doing the right thing by saying that the stock inside the stores is their stock. The value of it is their money and as far as I am concerned it is theirs. The company is wealthy enough that it should be able to treat these people properly. Everybody does things in their own way. Other people stood up tonight and attacked the Government on a personal basis and so on. I am not into that sort of thing. I will say to the Minister of State and the Government please to realise that these are our people. They are from Kerry, Limerick and Cork. They are taxpayers. I ask the Minister of State to stand with them. I say this respectfully to the Government on behalf of the Debenhams workers protesting in Tralee today, yesterday, last week and the week before. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan, will be interested to know, because he is one for a long time, that T.D. stands for Teachta Dála, which means "messenger of the people". I was sent here with a loud and clear message on behalf of the Debenhams workers that the Government should rise out and back these people because they are our people.
Next is the Independent Group. I call on Deputy Joan Collins.
Deputy Harkin was supposed to speak.
Deputy Collins has eight minutes.
I will take seven minutes.
I wish to express my support and solidarity for the up to 1,400 workers who were directly employed by Debenhams and those who were concession staff. I loudly condemn Debenhams' calculated, cynical and tactical liquidation of the 11 stores in the Republic of Ireland. These workers, mainly women and mainly mammies, as one of the girls from the Henry Street store said at a briefing yesterday with the Debenhams workers, are defending their money in the stock in the shops around the country.
These workers have tried, consistently, to work with Debenhams. They have shown huge loyalty to Debenhams over the years. In 2016, when the company went into administration, the workers assisted the company through the negotiation with their union, Mandate. They took pay cuts, they took cuts in their increments and they forewent staff discounts, which they gave up to Debenhams to keep the company going. Those workers drove the profitable online sales businesses, and all to keep their jobs. They have been treated with contempt. Even after the Clerys debacle and other debacles with other companies that went into liquidation such as HMV, this State has made no attempt to protect worker redundancies from rogue companies. Tactical insolvency is a fraud and amounts to theft of workers' pay and pensions, theft of goods and services from other companies, and theft of revenue from the State.
The loss of a job is traumatic. On top of this, workers are cheated out of wages they have worked for and out of redundancy pay they were legally entitled to. It is absolutely disgusting, and particularly under the cloud of Covid-19. For workers to have this foisted upon them, and to see their employer - in cases of profitable employers - getting away with such behaviour, is absolutely devastating. Debenhams has done this because other companies have done it and gotten away with it. There was a huge opportunity there. The previous speaker spoke about not attacking the Government but pleading with the Government. Workers have been pleading with previous Governments for decades to try to get this resolved and there was no effort by previous Governments to do this.
Deputy Cullinane pointed out that his Protection of Employees (Collective Redundancies) Bill 2017, which was put down, was to provide for protections for employees in situations of collective redundancy in which an employer is insolvent. One aspect of that Bill made a genuine attempt to prevent companies from asset stripping by giving power to the courts to return transferred assets into the hands of a liquidator and by making the employee the preferential creditor. This was one of the key points. The Bill got to Second Stage. It went on to Committee Stage and got lost even though all stood up and said, "Yes this needs to be done, we support the Clerys workers and Debenhams workers". Actions speak louder than words. This has not been acted upon even though there was a clear opportunity to do so at that time.
I thank Solidarity-People Before Profit for putting the motion forward. In his response to the motion the Minister of State said there is company law. Why then are we not advising those workers in how to challenge that company law, and how to challenge the company for doing what it did? The company is also in breach of section 9 of the Protection of Employment Act 1977. Section 9 of the Act provides that employers are obliged to consult employees' representatives and the consultation must last for 30 days, at least, before a notice of redundancy is given. Debenhams is also in breach of section 10 of the Act which states, "the employer concerned shall supply the employees' representatives with all relevant information relating to the proposed redundancies". The company is in breach also of section 10(2) that prescribes that such information includes: the number and descriptions of employees affected; the number and descriptions of the employees normally employed; the period during which the redundancies will happen; the criteria for selection of employees for redundancy; the method of calculating any redundancy payments; and so on. Debenhams is in breach of this Act, but the only thing the representatives can do for the workers is to bring it to the Workplace Relations Commission but the company does not have to go. It is unbelievable that the law in this country is so weak and so pro-business. It is not being challenged. The Industrial Relations Act 1990 does not deal with such issues for workers. There has also been the recent court ruling on sectoral employment orders, which again undermines workers' rights.
The workers at yesterday's briefing made clear points about what was going on in this case. On 14 May, when they spoke to the liquidator, KPMG claimed that debts to creditors, including the Revenue Commissioners, amounted to €19 million. Of this, €5 million was owed to Revenue, predominantly in the form of VAT. At this meeting, it was also confirmed that the value of the retail stock held in the 11 Irish stores was in the region of €20 million.
Subsequently, KPMG announced that Debenhams Retail Ireland's debts had increased to between €225 million and €250 million. This discrepancy arises from Debenhams Retail Ireland being made co-guarantor of debt facilities provided by the Debenhams Group as part of the 2019 restructuring. The Debenhams Group owners advanced new loan facilities of approximately €200 million. Debenhams Retail Ireland was co-guarantor in respect of these loans. These loans were only taken out towards the end of last year. The companies involved would not have got them if they were in any way non-profitable. They had to have been well profitable in fact.
The workers are not looking for the stars. They are practical and know the company, under our law, can get away with this. What they are asking for is at least four weeks' redundancy per year in payment. That is the minimum the Government should try to ensure they get offered. It might involve forgoing the €5 million due to the State in VAT or the Government could ensure that those assets in the store are claimed for the workers which the liquidator can do.
Deputy Barry pointed out earlier that the liquidator stated that unless the State instructs the liquidator to allocate supplementary cash for the workers, nothing can be done. Why is the Government not instructing the liquidator to do that? The liquidator has stated it can do it if it is instructed.
I salute the Debenhams workers in their courageous battle on the front line.
I welcome this debate. Having listened to the contributions, no politician has a monopoly on the outrage of what has happened to the Debenhams workers. No politician has a monopoly on disgust at how a company can treat people who have worked more than 30 years of their lives for it, giving it incredible service. Several Members this evening made assumptions and pedalled the line that Government and Fianna Fáil politicians are doing nothing. I have seen it before in my constituency and elsewhere this idea that protests solve everything.
Some of the politicians from the hard left namechecked parties on what they call the right. I am not a right of centre politician. What laws did People Before Profit ever get passed in this House in favour of workers' rights? What rights did Sinn Féin ever get passed in this House that benefited workers?
I am being heckled. Nobody heckled these speakers when they proposed the motions.
I have seen how the Deputies of the left manipulate vulnerable workers and force their mantra about an idealistic socialist republic. I have been on the protest marches and met these workers too. However, I did not bring Fianna Fáil flags, banners, placards or megaphones and lead the workers off with this tempting vision of a socialist workers' republic. I did not manipulate them.
Speaking on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Paul McAuliffe, as we are restricted in time, I assure the Debenhams workers in Tallaght and other parts of Dublin city that no stone is being left unturned. While some of us are not leading protests, assiduous hard work is being done on the workers' behalf by our Ministers, particularly by my Fianna Fáil colleagues, to ensure their rights are protected and they get what is due to them. No stone will be left unturned in the efforts to make that happen.
I acknowledge the important issues raised in the motion. I thank the proposers and those who have contributed to this debate. It is important and right that this debate should be held.
Together with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister of State, Deputy English, I met representatives of Debenhams workers this morning and heard directly their views, concerns and expectations. This was a constructive meeting. We discussed many issues and options, which are under further consideration.
Every Member believes these workers have been treated shoddily by a company to which they have given loyal service over many years and decades. Today, I met Carol and Valerie whom I was glad to meet and hear their concerns. I thank them for their honesty and direct engagement. Both ladies have given 54 years' service between them to this company which in itself speaks volumes.
The Covid crisis has been a reminder to all of us as to how much front-line workers, including retail workers, contribute to our society. I was heartened to hear the positive stories from both Carol and Valerie on how the Government's job loss response protocol is providing assistance, information and guidance to the Debenhams workers. That is not my opinion but comes from the workers themselves.
I was also struck that the representatives this morning did not focus solely on their own case but spoke also of the need for better protections for workers in insolvency in general. Responding to that identified need, I reiterated our commitments under the programme for Government. As Minister of State with responsibility for company legislation, I look forward to working with all parties in the House on how we can bring forward legislation to protect workers from rogue employers. It is important to emphasise that workers who are laid off are guaranteed their statutory redundancy. This will be paid through the Social Insurance Fund, if necessary, but we are looking to improve this.
Some Members were critical in their contributions about the July stimulus programme, which will be published tomorrow. This is about focusing attention on retraining and upskilling people. It is about extending the wage subsidy scheme and enhancing the restart grant. This is about creating new jobs while trying to protect and save existing ones. It is about protecting and supporting businesses to ensure people have job opportunities. I do not want to keep people on social welfare. I am about bringing forward policies which can support job creation and give everyone equal opportunities to get meaningful and rewarding jobs.
I acknowledge the retail sector faces many challenges, particularly from online retail. I encourage people, as others have, to refrain from using Debenhams online stores.
The suggestion has been made that, in the case of Debenhams, a tactical liquidation has been pursued. I am not making a specific comment while the case remains before the courts. However, in general terms under the Companies Act, a company cannot merely assert that it is insolvent. It must apply for an official court liquidation that is subject to supervision of the court system.
The Companies Act includes provisions to address instances of improper conduct in a liquidation where that is evidenced. For instance, section 608 provides for a court power to order the return of assets improperly transferred. It is worth pointing out that there are civil and criminal penalties associated with these measures.
Turning to redundancy payments and collective agreements, redundancy payments are understandably a focus for employees of Debenhams at this time. It has not been confirmed yet what the company is in a position to pay in redundancy or whether the State will need to make up a shortfall in statutory redundancies. As it stands, collective agreements on payments beyond statutory redundancy are a matter for negotiation between parties through an industrial relations process. The WRC is available to assist if and when that is sought.
Contrary to what the motion suggests, the Duffy Cahill report did not directly recommend the inclusion of enhanced redundancy payments as preferential debts. Indeed, the report stated, "It is not desirable to create a special class of redundant worker with legal rights that go beyond those of the generality of workers", and noted the difficulties of determining whether an entitlement to enhanced redundancy would arise. Nonetheless, the Government has committed in the programme for Government to reviewing the current legal provisions on collective redundancies to see what improvements can be achieved on that front. These are particularly pressing issues, given the number of people whose employment has been threatened or lost as a result of the Covid-19 public health emergency. The Government has made several important commitments in the programme for Government, which are to be immediately commenced.
Speaking as a trade union member and the new Minister of State with responsibility for companies regulation, it is my intention to ensure that we pursue legislation to protect workers' rights from rogue employers. We need to make that distinction. There are good employers who treat their employees exceptionally well and give them their just deserts, but there are also many rogue employers. That cannot be tolerated. I ask Members to work with me in my new role over the next number of years to improve and enhance that legislation, and I pledge to work with them to ensure that happens. I for one do not want to see a situation where reports such as the Duffy Cahill report are commissioned and recommendations are made but are not pursued and implemented. I ask Members to judge me after a longer time in this role, not after just two weeks.
To conclude, the Solidarity-People Before Profit grouping has ten minutes. I call Deputy Bríd Smith.
I am sharing time with Deputy Boyd Barrett.
Will it be five minutes each?
The Deputy should give me a hint.
Seven minutes and three minutes.
I thank the Deputy
I talk for longer than he does.
Ar aghaidh leat.
Deputy Lahart stated that no stone would be left unturned. We are not asking the Government to turn any stone. Rather, we are asking it to drop its amendment because that amendment is worse than outright opposition. It essentially repeats what Eamon de Valera - in this, the Minister of State is at least being consistent - said to Irish workers all those decades ago, namely, that labour must wait. That is what the Government is saying to the Debenhams workers with this amendment. It is outrageous. As has been said repeatedly, they have been waiting more than 100 days. At the beginning, we called them the canaries in the coal mine because they were flagging that many tens of thousands of workers were facing redundancy, often in situations where justice would not be meted out to them. Justice for workers in this country is sadly lacking.
We are asking all Deputies which side they are on. Those are the words of the old labour song, "Which Side Are You On?" We are being asked to accept that liquidation, insolvency and mass redundancies are a natural occurrence like the weather, but that is not the case with Debenhams. This situation did not occur because of Covid, because shopping and business fell off or because stores in Ireland were not making enough profit. In the words of one of the shop stewards, this is a contrived insolvency. It happened because of a decision by a consortium of Bank of Ireland - remember the name - Barclays and two US-based hedge funds to appoint an administrator to Debenhams UK, triggering the withdrawal of support for the Irish arm of Debenhams and leading, in turn, to the liquidation and the loss of 1,400 jobs. It was not a natural event, but a conscious decision taken in the struggle over power and money between a consortium called Celine, which includes Bank of Ireland, and other shareholders, such as Sports Direct. The workers are collateral damage in a struggle between extremely wealthy and powerful vested interests.
I commend the workers. They are amazing. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State met them this morning. If they were not impressed by them, they ought to have been. They have taken a courageous stand. It is only when workers stand up and fight back that we can see any real change happening in this country. Some 90% of those workers are women, of whom more than 70% are in their 40s or 50s. That means that they have lived through the experience of recession at least three times. All the talk of retraining and repurposing them for new employment is not impressing them. It reads well, but it does not guarantee them any help. Eventually, the Government will be forced to do what the Debenhams workers are screaming at it to do.
The amendment calls for a review of legislation. The Minister of State just went through the details of the Duffy Cahill report. The Taoiseach must be well versed in it - pardon me for the Freudian slip, but I meant the Minister, Deputy Varadkar - because he was Taoiseach and sat on that report for years and did nothing. We need to act immediately and take the steps that were suggested in it. It states:
where workers have a sustainable claim to enhanced redundancy payments based on a contractual or quasi-contractual entitlement ... a practical mechanism should be provided by which those claims can be pursued.... [It] could best be achieved by increasing the level of compensation that can be awarded where the Protection of Employment Acts is contravened ... [It] would be possible for an Adjudication Officer ... to take into account ... a failure to obtain enhanced redundancy payments on foot of an express or implied terms incorporated in the employees' contracts of employment ...
This was written in 2016. In the years since, neither this nor any other of the Duffy Cahill report's recommendations has been enacted. The Minister currently responsible, Deputy Varadkar, told the House recently that Ireland had robust workers' legislation - in his dreams. We do not - not for the SEOs, not for the Debenhams workers, and not in terms of redundancies. The State and its institutions have utterly failed workers. They have continued failing them even after the Clerys situation in 2015.
The Government now has a chance to do the right thing, but it has tabled an amendment that basically tells the workers to go away. The Government claims this matter is complex with unintended consequences and the cost to the Exchequer and so on needing to be considered, but let us think back to only last week when very complex legislation of more than 140 pages was passed. Even the Minister of State responsible admitted that he had not read it or did not understand it. That legislation was to facilitate this country signing up to an EU package to be dispensed to businesses. As Deputy Gino Kenny mentioned, the Dáil sat day and night in 2008 to pass complex emergency legislation. It moved heaven and earth for bankers and businesses. Now, we are asking the Government to do that for workers, who are just as important, if not more important, than any banker or businessman.
The difference between a statutory payment of two weeks and the possibility of an enhanced payment of an additional two weeks would give considerable comfort to workers in servicing their mortgages, paying off other debts, etc. We call on the Government to accept two of our requests. First, it should tell the liquidators that all money coming to the State in the form of taxes, VAT and so on should be used to pay the enhanced redundancies. Second, Bank of Ireland should be called in by the Government and told that, even though the taxpayer bailed it out more than ten years ago, it is now playing a game with no thought given to the devastation caused to the lives of the families involved.
As a key shareholder in that consortium, it needs to make sure that those workers get justice and their just deserts.
The Green Party is noticeable by its absence here tonight. Do its members consider themselves progressive and on the side of workers in these situations? Are they committed to what they call a just transition for workers? If they are committed to it in the climate area, they should be committed to it in this debate. I am asking the Green Party, members of which are not here to speak in support of this motion, to vote with us tomorrow and to use the position they won votes for to defend workers' rights over the vested interests of finance and banking.
The Government and Deputy Lahart tried to muddy the waters and to deflect to absolve themselves of responsibility for giving a direct answer to the questions that this motion asks of them and to cover the fact that they have deleted our entire motion and replaced it with vague promises of reviews, no tangible commitments and, essentially, a recapitulation of existing legislation, which implies there really is no problem at all. There is a big problem. Deputy Lahart should note the motion does not ask for a socialist republic. It asks for the Government to implement the Duffy Cahill report into legislation in order that what is being done to the Debenhams workers can never be done again. The Government cannot commit to it. It will not commit to it. If we are sceptical it is because it is five years since that report and the Clerys incident. As I said previously, this has gone on for years under previous Fianna Fáil Governments. I refer to Vita Cortex, La Senza and Thomas Cook. It goes on and no action is taken. The Government can hardly blame us for being sceptical.
We ask that something we learned from the liquidators, not dreamed up in some left-wing textbook, be done. The liquidators said that the Government as priority creditors could instruct them to dispose of the assets in favour of the workers. The Government has still not responded to that point. It should give the instruction. It should give the commitment to engage with Bank of Ireland, which is directly involved in triggering the process for its own interests and for the profits of its shareholders that has led to the cynical dumping of 1,400 workers. Will the Government tell Bank of Ireland that this is not acceptable and insist that proper redundancy is paid to workers by the consortium to which it is a party and in which it almost certainly was involved in engineering the dumping of debt onto the Irish company in order that the assets could be taken off the book?
I say to the Debenhams workers, "Do not listen to Deputy Lahart when he downplays protest". I was talking to the shop stewards earlier. They are hopeful. They are hopeful because the issue is being debated in the Dáil tonight and because they have met Ministers. The reason any of that has happened is because they have been determined in their protest for 100 days. It is the protests of those workers and their inspiring determination, bravery and courage that has forced this issue onto the agenda of this House and forced the Government to meet them. It is that determination, that inspiring heroism by the Debenhams workers that will see this battle to a successful conclusion, which conclusion, if it is victorious for the workers, will be a victory not just for the Debenhams workers but for every worker in this country who could face similar treatment in the future.
In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 23 July 2020.