Thursday, 1 April 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I thank the Deputy. I only heard about those events in the past hour or so. Without knowing all the facts, I do not want to comment any further. However, I am of the view that the former Debenhams workers were very badly treated by their employer in the way they were laid off over a year ago. The Government has done all that it can to ensure that their legal rights and entitlements were upheld. Over €10 million has already been paid in statutory redundancy payments from the Social Insurance Fundto former Debenhams workers. Another €3 million has been offered on an ex gratiabasis in terms of a retraining fund for workers . Discussions about how that might be deployed are taking place with the unions today. The Taoiseach, a number of Ministers and I have met the workers, the unions and Debenhams UK. We also made contact with the liquidators involved, the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, an office under my remit, and the chairman of the Labour Court. Major efforts have been made to resolve these issues in a way that is fair but also that is legal and does not create other unfair precedents.
The Debenhams workers have not been treated very fairly in other ways in the sense that they have not always been told the full truth regarding this dispute. The comparison the Deputy makes with Clerys is a bogus one. In that dispute, there was a very large and valuable property asset, a large building on O'Connell Street, and as a result of that it was possible for additional payments to be made to the former Clerys workers. In this case, the only assets are some fixtures and stock. Those assets are declining in value every day and have a total value that does not exceed the moneys owed by Debenhams to others. It is not the same as Clerys, it is very different. While we can and will make changes to company law and employment law, those changes that might have resulted in a different outcome to the matter relating to Clerys would not have resulted, I believe, in a different outcome in the case of Debenhams. Deputy Bríd Smith has acknowledged that in comments she has made in the Chamber.
In terms of the collective agreement and the two plus two mentioned by the Deputy, when this was examined by the chairman of the Labour Court he questioned whether it was valid in the event of an insolvency. That was a collective agreement reached in 2016 when voluntary redundancies were being made. It is highly questionable as to whether such an agreement applied in the event of an insolvency. It certainly did not apply in law, whatever about in contract. Examples have been raised in respect of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation and it has been suggested that public money from the Exchequer was used to pay termination payments in that case. We know now that that was not the case. There are many sad aspects to this whole affair, both the way in which Debenhams workers were treated by their employer and also the way in which they have been misinformed by certain people all along. That is wrong too.