Early last April – as the country grappled with the arrival of COVID-19 – the lives of 150 workers at Debenhams in Tralee were thrown into further turmoil when the UK-owned chain announced suddenly that it was shutting all its Irish stores and laying off the entire workforce.
ver since, the ex-workers – who have been promised only a basic statutory redundancy payment – have been protesting in demand of a fair settlement from the department store chain’s liquidators.
As the first anniversary of their extraordinary protest nears, ex-Debenham’s workers in Tralee remain as defiant as ever and say they will never back down in their fight for fair treatment.
The story of their long fight began last April when Debenhams announced it was shutting its 11 Irish stores – including its branch at Manor West in Tralee – with the loss of 2,000 jobs nationwide and 150 in Kerry.
Ever since, former staff have maintained 24-hour protests outside all 11 premises – often in freezing conditions – demanding ‘fair’ redundancy payments and blockading the shops to prevent the removal of valuable stock by agents of the liquidators.
The former workers are set to receive statutory redundancy payouts of two weeks of salary per year of service, the bare minimum that liquidators KPMG are legally obliged to pay.
The laid-off staff have condemned the mandatory “offer” as an affront to their years of service to the company and are seeking at least four weeks’ pay per service year.
The Government has not intervened – despite expressing ‘sympathy’ to the workers – and a proposal, last December, from the Labour Court to set up a €3million training fund for the laid-off staff was described as an “insult” and “a kick in the teeth” by the workers.
One of the protesting workers, Deirdre Mangan from Tralee, said she and her colleagues are tired and worn out after a year on the picket line, but they have no intention of giving up the fight.
“It’s sickening really, but we’re still fighting and we’re not going to give up,” she said.
“None of us thought we’d be here this long, but here we are a year later”.
Deirdre said the Debenham’s lay-offs had, to some extent, fallen through the cracks due to the COVID pandemic and that the workers feel abandoned by their Government.
“They can throw money at everything else, but they say there’s nothing to help us out. At times it feels like being homeless, were just being ignored,” Deirdre said.
She is especially critical of Kerry’s Government TDs Fianna Fáil Minister Norma Foley and Fine Gael’s Brendan Griffin whom, she says, have offered the workers no real support since their parties took office.
Sinn Féin’s Pa Daly, by contrast, “has been brilliant”, while People Before Profit and the Healy-Raes have also been very supportive.
“We’ll all think of that when the next election comes,” she said.
While Government aid has been next to non-existent, there has been no end to the public’s support, something the protesters are enormously grateful for.
“A year on, the level of public support is the same as it was on the first day,” said Deirdre.”Even just yesterday, a man came down and gave us €50 so we could buy some supplies to keep us going. It was so kind.
“People have no idea how much their small gestures mean to us and how much we appreciate them. Getting a cup of tea or coffee can make all the difference and help keep you going,” she said.
“We cannot thank the people enough for all their support.”
Deirdre also said a special thank you to Irish Marquees in Tralee, who provided the protesters with the marquee that has often been their only shelter as they maintained their year-long, 24-hour vigil.
As the anniversary of the protest looms, the message from Deirdre and her colleagues is clear. They’re as united as ever; they aren’t going anywhere and the liquidators should be prepared for a long fight.
“We’re going to fight this as long as we possibly can. We have our up days and our down days, but we’re there for each other, and we’ll keep fighting to the end,” she said.