On Saturday 1 August, Phyllis Brophy sat on a foldable canvas chair against an open navy security gate on Parnell Street, at the entrance to what once was the former Debenhams loading bay, and what now is a picket line.
“It’s horrible what they’ve done,” said Brophy, of the company. “I live on my own now and work was my reason to get up and go.”
Brophy, an unassuming woman dressed in black nylon suit trousers and jacket with a graduated blonde bob, used to work in the upstairs stockroom in Debenhams department store. First in the store in Jervis Street Shopping Centre. Later, on Henry Street.
She’d been with the company for 20 years before it announced that it was closing all Irish branches on 9 April via a generic email sent to all staff.
“[There were] no meetings, no negotiations, no nothing, and as bad as Clearys was at least it was told to their face,” she says.
A few moments before, her former Debenhams colleagues on the picket line had surprised her with a birthday cake, and sang to her.
It’s her birthday tomorrow, she says, as she shifts shyly in her seat.
Since Debenhams Ireland closed its doors, it’s left ex-staff with the minimum statutory redundancy package: two weeks pay for every year worked, capped at €600 per week, plus one additional week total added in at the end.
“It’s nothing, it’s about a year’s wages. What am I meant to do for the next four years after that?” says Brophy.
Brophy, like other older women on the picket line, is concerned that she won’t find another job in retail. “I’m 62 now tomorrow,” she says.
Ex-Debenhams staff on the picket want the parent company, Debenhams UK, to agree to a collective agreement made between staff, the trade union Mandate and the company in 2016 during a round of voluntary redundancies.
That would see workers get four weeks pay for each year worked.
Debenhams didn’t respond to emails surrounding the agreement between staff in 2016 or any other queries in time for publication.
For now, Brophy has swapped her hours in the stockroom for six-hour shifts on a 24-hour picket line.
She and her former colleagues are blocking the stock they believe to be inside the now shuttered store, pressing for it to be put into a fund that could go towards their redundancy packages.
Blockade At Service Yard One
Eileen Courage says there was enough stock in the Henry Street branch for about three more months when she left on 23 March.
Courage, 64, who worked as a merchandiser on the loading bay at service yard one, believes that the total value of stock inside all Irish Debenhams branches is worth about €20 million, according to an independent evaluation conducted by former staff, she says.
“The stock is our leverage at the minute,” says Courage.
She and colleagues have blocked the stock since Friday 22 May, to try to get the company to address what they would see as a fair redundancy package – two weeks’ statutory plus two weeks paid by Debenhams. The same deal as in 2016.
Brian Forbes ,the national communications coordinator of Mandate Trade Union, which represents the workers, says that there’s “a short window of opportunity” before the stock is calculated into the liquidation process.
Courage says she’s found the whole process tough. Her brother is in the Mater Hospital, and was given 24-hours to live last week. A sister is in Beaumont Hospital with heart trouble.
“[I] could do without being here, but you have to fight for your rights,” she says.
She says she had been hopeful. Then a rally planned for 1 August, organised by two political parties, was postponed when Mandate asked the workers not to attend.
“That should have never happened,” she said. “We should’ve had a vote. I’m not standing here for the good of my health.”
The picket can be a scary place, especially during the night shifts, says Lesley Anne O’Rourke , a single mother with a mortgage and a teenage son.
“We’ve seen some fighting and drug use and really you just want to be at home,” she says.
There’s been a lot of goodwill from people though, she says. Security guards gave them a key to the Ilac Centre toilets, she says.
Beside Courage is a stack of cakes and biscuits donated by passers-by.
O’Rourke says that getting the extra two weeks would make a huge difference. “It would take the pressure off, maybe I could go back to college and reeducate myself.”
Each hour, the workers stroll the perimeter – from the loading bay through the Parnell Street exit of the Ilac Centre and out around the entrance to the Debenhams shop front on Henry Street.
They’re checking, they say, that no one is trying to grab the stock.
On 1 August, Doireen Keegan and Mairead Fulham snaked through the throng of Saturday shoppers, placards tucked under their arms.
As they patrolled the route, they chatted about which politicians had come that day.
Says Fulham: “We’re looking for trucks. Just to be sure to be sure and to see if the lights are on.”
The picketers had come across two trucks, about a month earlier at about 7am on 9 July.
“I put out a red alert to the workers in the main WhatsApp group,” says Suzanne Sherry, who worked in payroll for Debenhams for 24 years.
The group is full of people who live close by, she says. “Who would run at the drop of a hat.”
That time, the truck drivers wouldn’t cross their picket, says Sherry. “One of the drivers said he was involved in a dispute with Tesco before and that he would respect the picket.”
“I’ve never been on a picket line before,” says Keegan. “Sure we were all wonderful workers.”
“In 24 years, I think I took five days, and any of those were for funerals. The best years of my life were given to Debenhams,” she says.
The night before, the windows of Debenhams had been covered with black plastic bin bags. Graffiti on a window reads: “Debenhams Right back @ you.ie”.
“Someone put up that plastic yesterday, so we can’t see inside,” says Fulham, shaking her head.
“We’re not budging. We’re just not budging. If there were only four or five of us we’d lie under the trucks,” she says.
Changing the Rules
When a company like Debenhams goes into liquidation, a queue of creditors have their hand out for their money, and the workers usually come too far down that line to get anything, says Forbes national communications coordinator of Mandate.
He says that usually, when the stock is sold by the liquidators around 95 percent of the money from the liquidation goes to the state as a main creditor for rates and taxes.
A government-commissioned report from 2016, known as the Duffy-Cahill Report, suggests ways to safeguard more employees’ interests when dealing with collective redundancies and liquidations.
The report was triggered by the liquidation of Clerys department store in 2015. It’s never been made law. The Debenham workers are campaigning for that to be changed.
The point of the report was to “change the pecking order when it comes to tactical redundancy”, says People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith.
In other words, workers would become preferential creditors in the case of insolvency, she says.
“In the case of the Debenham workers, there existed an [redundancy] agreement with the company, two weeks statutory and two weeks from the coffers of the company,” she says.
That’s what the Duffy-Cahill Report argued for, she says.
Solicitor Richard Grogan thinks the report is likely to sit there forever: “Nothing is happening with it.”
Grogan says that if a company cannot pay enhanced redundancies that were previously bargained for before a company becomes insolvent, under the Duffy-Cahill Report, then the state would have to pick up the cost.
The next year may see 100,000 to 150,000 redundancies, he says. “So it’s going to be expensive enough for the state to pay out in the current redundancy legislation never mind anything else.”
Smith, People Before Profit TD, says that it would, in reality, mean the state picking up the tab for the extra two weeks. “But technically we would be doing the right thing by putting the workers before everyone else.”