Thursday, 17 December 2020
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
90. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if his attention has been drawn to the fact that provisional liquidators have been appointed to a group (details supplied); and if he will engage with the workers and their trade union to ensure that, regardless of what happens, the company will honour the workers' collective agreement. [44124/20]
Before the hostilities break out, as they inevitably will, I want to take this opportunity to wish the Minister, the Ministers of State and their families and the staff in the Department a very happy Christmas and a safe and - fingers crossed - healthy new year. I know how hard everybody has been working and I am sure they are all, like myself and all of us on this side of the House, very much looking forward to a bit of a break.
My question is reasonably simple. It relates to the appointment of liquidators to the Arcadia Group, which includes shops and brands such as Topshop, Wallis and Topman. As the Minister knows, I am looking for him to engage with the workers and their trade union to ensure the collective agreements of these workers, regardless of what happens. I will not describe the collective agreements as "enjoyed" by these workers because I do not believe anyone will enjoy what is about to happen. As the Minister knows, these people are at work now and extremely busy. However, their jobs are hanging in the balance.
Joint provisional liquidators have been appointed by the High Court to four Irish operating companies that are part of the UK fashion group Arcadia. As the matter is before the courts and not a matter for Government, it is sub judiceand I am limited in what I can say.
I extend my sympathies to the workers who are in danger of losing their jobs. I fully appreciate how difficult the situation is for those involved, especially at this time of the year.
It is important to say that a provisional liquidator does not take steps to wind up a company but rather preserves and secures the company's assets pending appointment of an official liquidator. Therefore, the employees of Arcadia remain as employees and continue to have employment rights and contractual rights, which they can exercise.
I understand that it is hoped to secure the sale of the Irish operations as part of an overall sale of the group and that the Irish stores will continue to trade through Christmas to maximise the value of stock.
The Government hopes a suitable and sustainable buyer can be found, and that any potential job losses can be avoided or mitigated.
Section 12 of the Protection of Employment Act 1977 makes it mandatory on employers to notify the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment of a proposed collective redundancy. To date, we have received no such notification in regard to Arcadia.
Redundancy is a matter for the employer in the first instance but the State will guarantee the employment rights and entitlements of the workers in Arcadia; it should be borne in mind that a collective agreement such as the one the Deputy mentioned is contingent on the employer's ability to pay.
The Companies Act 2014 provides safeguards to ensure that a liquidation complies with the law. In the event of the appointment of an official liquidator, workers also have rights as creditors under company law and they can execute these through the courts. They, or their representatives, can go to court on any question arising in the winding up of a company. The Government will work in a co-ordinated way to assist anyone who loses his or her job. A wide range of measures including welfare entitlements, job search assistance and upskilling opportunities can be made available. We will be happy to engage with the trade union representing the workers in Arcadia.
I thank the Tánaiste for his response. There are 491 jobs in the balance at the moment. That is 491 people with families, bills to pay, etc. I appreciate what the Tánaiste is saying regarding the appointment of the provisional liquidator. However, these people are in work today. They are looking at their collective agreement. They are looking at what happened to the workers in Debenhams. They are wondering if their collective agreement is worth the paper it is written on. For the avoidance of any doubt, a collective agreement is always about give and take. These workers have already given in terms of what they will get back and now they are looking at their jobs hanging in the balance. I welcome the fact that the Tánaiste will meet them. I will inform their trade union so that those arrangements can be made. I understand a good many of these workers work in the Blanchardstown centre and would be constituents of the Tánaiste. I am sure they will be in touch with me. Will he join me in sending solidarity and support to those workers? They are working now over the Christmas period. It is extremely busy and they do not know if their jobs will be safe and secure. I would like to hear from the Tánaiste what he can do to be proactive. I fully respect that some matters are before the court but in terms of being proactive, what can he do to secure the almost 500 jobs for those workers?
The Deputy is absolutely right. Many of these workers live in my constituency and have been in contact with me already. There are 500 of them across the country. The first objective will be to save as many jobs as we possibly can save. The second will be to ensure that their rights and entitlements are guaranteed but with support and solidarity must come honesty. That means saying that, as people would understand, legal rights and entitlements are set out in law. A collective agreement is contingent on the ability of the employer to pay. I have often said previously that I believe the Debenhams workers were very badly treated by their employer, in the way they were laid off in particular, but they were also badly treated by some people who took up their cause. I do not mean their trade union. I mean political forces that led them to believe that there is a big pot of money somewhere here in Ireland or in the UK to which they can get access. We know now from the independent report of the chairman of the Labour Court, which came out this week, that that was not the case. Some months ago there was a deal on the table - two weeks redundancy per year of service, an extra €1 million and some of the stores, and the jobs, being saved - and that opportunity was lost. That is a real shame. I hope that when the Arcadia workers see some of those people riding over the hill coming to help them that they run them because they did not help them. The best thing they can do is to take the advice of their trade union leadership, and the Government will do everything we can to help them.
I do not want to get into a slagging match about that but I am someone with a fair amount of industrial relations experience. I am not in the habit or in the practice of interfering in industrial disputes but I see a very clear role for the Government in this regard. I have spoken at length with representatives from Mandate. It is not good enough for the Tánaiste to simply say that he hopes an alternative buyer is found and that the jobs will be saved. We are talking about 500 jobs. He has a responsibility, as the Minister with responsibility for jobs, to intervene in this case. As he said, the first steps have to be to save the jobs. In that regard, is there anything the Tánaiste can do? I am trying to be positive. I am not in the business or the practice of giving workers false hope. I did not do that when I was a union organiser. I do not do it now as a TD. The Tánaiste appears to be a bit passive on this issue. He stands back, shrugs his shoulders and says that the nature of retail is changing. People are being driven to shop online because they do not have money in their back pocket. That is a fact. These jobs are important and I wanted to hear from the Tánaiste what he is prepared to do, in his role as Minster with responsibility for jobs, to save these jobs and to ensure these workers have a secure future.
What the workers will get is what they deserve, which is solidarity, support and total honesty. They may not get that from others. We will do the best we can to secure as many of the 500 jobs as possible and keep as many of the stores open as possible. We will engage with the union and, to the extent that we can, with the liquidator on that. As a Government we will ensure that the legal entitlements and rights of the workers are honoured but we will be honest in saying that they have the same set of rights as every other worker. There cannot be special or extra rights for some workers over others. All we can honour is what is set out in the law.
Retail is changing. People who have money in their pocket are now spending it online. For the first time in Ireland, more money is spent online than physically. The pandemic has accelerated a change that was happening anyway. That means we will need fewer people working in the shop in retail but we will need more in other areas such as distribution, for example, and warehousing. That is why we are willing to provide training and educational opportunities to ensure people can retrain for new jobs because there will be jobs in other sectors.