Irish police attack sacked Debenhams workers

In a calculated display of class violence, striking Debenhams workers in Dublin, Ireland, were manhandled and arrested late Thursday night as up to 60 Gardaí (police), some in paramilitary gear, dragged four workers, mostly older women, from the loading bay of the store in which many of them had worked for decades.

The workers, part of a group of around 30, were trying to prevent Debenhams liquidator, KPMG, from removing stock from the store where they worked until April last year.

One of the workers, shop steward Jane Crowe, described to RTE what happened, “We were forcibly lifted up. I was carried out. While they were carrying me out my jacket came off over my head, my jumper came off over my head. I was left with no clothes from the waist up and my under garments were broken as well. It was demoralising to be left half naked in front of 50 or 60 Gardaí, as well as the public and colleagues. There was no need for the heavy handedness.” Video footage shared on Twitter showed a clutch of police around one of the workers, while her terrified daughter shouted in protest.

Carmel Redmond, a Debenhams worker for 24 years, expressed deep shock at her experience, “Everything we do is peaceful. When the guards arrived, there were all these Garda vans and some of them were three-deep. We didn’t expect any of this, to be physically removed. It was a bit overwhelming. We just want to keep going with our picket. We have that right.”

The following night Gardaí broke up picket lines outside the company's Tralee store, where workers had been picketing for 380 days to prevent stock removal. Four removal trucks then entered the loading bay. Over previous weeks similar scenes took place in Blanchardstown and Cork.

Despite this state violence ordered by the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition government, the Mandate trade union and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) have refused any measures in the workers defence. 

Mandate, which covers 40,000 retail workers across Ireland, has left its members isolated for more than 12 months, leaving them at the mercies of the Labour Court, the Irish government and the Gardaí.

Gerry Light, Mandate’s General Secretary, issued a statement Friday making clear his union was in the process of ending the dispute. He said of the violent actions by police, “This incident should never have happened. The workers had decided to ballot for a potential resolution to this dispute at 4:30pm yesterday”. While details of Mandate’s agreement with KPMG have not been released, two previous deals were rejected outright by workers.

Debenhams Retail Ireland Ltd collapsed last April at the same time as Debenhams in Britain (nominally a separate company) went into administration. Over 2,000 workers lost their jobs in Ireland, while in Britain 22,000 staff at 142 stores were placed on furlough. The Irish company announced it would not reopen after lockdown, while some UK stores have re-opened temporarily for “fire sales” in the middle of a deadly pandemic, prior to permanent closure.

Although their jobs have already gone, Debenhams staff in Ireland have been on strike since May last year, pursuing redundancy payments under terms previously agreed by the company with Mandate in 2016. Workers at the company's 11 Irish stores are seeking four weeks redundancy pay for every year worked, significantly more than the state redundancy payout.

Repeated protests have been held both online and outside Debenhams stores and at the Dáil Eireann (Irish parliament). In August, 200 demonstrated at the Dublin store. In September, workers briefly occupied stores in Cork and Dublin in response to derisory offers from KPMG, with some workers arrested. KPMG’s “offer”, agreed by Mandate, was reportedly worth a mere €1 million covering all staff. It was also met by protests outside KPMG's offices, with Debenhams in Waterford occupied for five days.

Late last year, the Irish Labour Court rejected demands for better compensation. Labour Court chair Kevin Foley, after talks with Mandate, KPMG, and various government agencies, concluded their 2016 agreement did not apply. Other creditors, mainly the Department of Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners—who are owed around €18 million—would take precedence. This time, Debenhams workers were offered €3 million to retrain, which they again rejected in a 91 percent vote of 430 workers.

KPMG was granted an injunction last October against anyone obstructing the removal of assets. It is this injunction that was enforced by Gardaí against workers over the last weeks.

The Irish government, the courts, the police, employers and trade unions are doing everything they can to ensure that as little as possible of whatever Debenhams assets remain in Ireland are transferred to the workers. The Irish state is sending a clear message to international capitalism that no obstacle will be placed before Ireland’s status as a lucrative platform for the extraction of surplus value from the working class.

Ireland’s pseudo-left groups, including People Before Profit (PBP), have played a central role in politically straitjacketing the working class throughout the year-long dispute. PBP hailed Debenhams workers’ struggle while systematically blinding them to the isolation imposed by Mandate and the ICTU. PBP has promoted submissiveness to the state, encouraging illusions that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail could be pressured to legislate against asset strippers and other financial parasites represented by KPMG.

Bríd Smith, Solidarity-People Before Profit TD, issued a statement marking one year of the dispute, declaring it would “benefit all workers if promised legislation to implement the Duffy/Cahill report is implemented”.

The Duffy-Cahill report was submitted to the Irish government by Labour Court chairman Kevin Duffy and Senior Counsel Neasa Cahill in 2016 and has gathered dust ever since. It proposed minimal protections for workers in the event of company insolvencies where assets have been “separated” from the operating entity (i.e., where assets have been hidden to protect wealthy shareholders and investors). Its recommendations included a 30-day consultation period with unions prior to redundancies, some redress if no consultation takes place, along with enhanced redundancy payments. Its recommendations have been ignored by successive Irish governments.

Smith claimed the report would have given “some[!] protection” to the Debenhams workers, before complaining that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail “did nothing to implement legislation to facilitate the implementation of the Duffy-Cahill Report”.

People Before Profit advances no independent programme for the working class, such as the fight for expropriation and workers’ control of the banks and corporations. Instead, Smith stated, “We urgently need to reorder the priority of creditors in a liquidation so that workers are at the top of the queue.” PBP’s defence of capitalism was underlined by Richard Boyd Barrett TD. Referencing the bailout of companies during the pandemic, he declared “In these extraordinary times the government has taken extraordinary measures to support businesses, some of whom remain profitable. It must now take similar measures to support workers made redundant in these difficult times.”

As police and strike breakers were being mobilised at Debenhams, Solidarity & Socialist Party TD Mick Barry moved his Companies (Protection of Employees’ Rights in Liquidations) Bill 2021 in the Dáil. A brief amendment to the 2014 Companies Act, it seeks “preferential creditor status to employees in collective redundancy situations; to provide for recognition of redundancy payments in a winding up”. It has no chance of being passed. As for the Duffy-Cahill report, when Barry asked its authors in parliament whether their report’s recommendations would have protected Debenhams workers, Cahill and Duffy refused to be drawn.

The government, a coalition of the main bourgeois parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael along with the Green Party, is moving now against the Debenhams workers because of rapidly escalating class tensions in Ireland.

Thousands more jobs in retail and across the Irish economy are threatened. Last September, Ryanair warned that 140,000 aviation jobs are under threat, along with 325,000 in tourism. Carphone Warehouse stores are due to close “with immediate effect” at the cost of 480 jobs. Much of the retail economy is due to open next month in Ireland despite the ongoing threat from COVID-19. 20,000 building workers are also due to recommence work, while Intel's huge Leixlip site outside Dublin has never stopped despite COVID-19 outbreaks. At the time of writing, power workers for ESB Networks are planning two days of strikes this week against privatisation. The company has declared the strike “unlawful”.