Dáil debates

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Companies (Protection of Employees' Rights in Liquidations) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]

 

10:00 am

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I will be sharing time with Deputies Gino Kenny and Boyd Barrett.

The only thing that will ever change the situation for workers in a liquidation is changing the statutory priorities so that workers are moved up the chain. That is according to Mr. Kieran Wallace of KPMG in an interview with the Business Poston Sunday, 2 May. Today, Deputies will have the opportunity to take a big step towards doing precisely that and moving workers up the chain. The Bill seeks to change the law in two respects: by placing workers at the front of the queue when it comes to making payouts from a liquidator's pot, as is the case in Greece, France and Portugal; and by making unpaid collective agreements, for example, an unpaid collective redundancy agreement, into a debt in the eyes of the liquidation laws.

It is interesting that the Government has decided not to oppose the Bill. The Debenhams strike has drawn public attention once again to the issues at stake and I suspect the Government senses that public opinion favours change. It knows which way the wind is blowing. However, the Government is also proposing that a Second Reading of the Bill be deferred for 12 months, meaning that it would not be allowed to progress to the next Stage until May 2022. That is unacceptable to me as the Bill's mover and to my Solidarity-People Before Profit colleagues.

A retail jobs massacre is under way. On Dublin's Henry Street, 30% of stores are vacant. A similar situation obtains in shopping centres throughout the country. Another large wave of closures and redundancies will arrive in the autumn, as the Tánaiste pointed out in his "Morning Ireland" interview at the start of the week. As a result, there is an urgent need to put in place protections for these workers in advance of the withdrawal of State supports for business. To be clear, I am in favour of saving jobs and of campaigning to save jobs, but where saving them is not possible, full protections must be in place in terms of a decent redundancy package for working people.

The Government sees the urgent need to change the examinership laws for business. It was all over the media about that issue yesterday. As such, why does it not see the urgent need to change the liquidation laws for workers? A clear double standard seems to be at play. It is not as though Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are being confronted by a new issue and need some time to do some head scratching on it. The Vita Cortex sit-in presented these matters to the parties now in government nearly ten years ago. The Clerys scandal is six years old. Five years ago, Ms Nessa Cahill and Mr. Kevin Duffy presented Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with a report that the then Government had commissioned. Five years on, the Government has failed to implement their recommendations. As such, let us call the proposal to defer for a year by its correct name - time wasting. Now is not the time for time wasting. Now is the time for action and I urge the Dáil to vote against the Government's amendment.

This legislation has been nicknamed the Debenhams Bill.

The source of its inspiration is the struggle of the Debenhams workers, overwhelmingly women, which will be 400 days old this Friday. I have been asked if the Debenhams workers can benefit directly from the passage of this Bill. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is "No". Retrospective legislation is not possible. However, if one talks to any of the Debenhams workers, one will be told that they would be proud if the legacy of their dispute was to be improved rights for all working people in liquidation situations, for the next group of workers to whom this will happen and for the next generation. What a generosity of spirit is shown in that attitude. It is a generosity of spirit that should be recognised by this Dáil by way of the passage of this legislation tonight without any deferral or delay.

On Tuesday morning at 4 a.m., 40 gardaí, some of them from the Garda public order unit, backed up by police vans physically removed Debenhams workers from the picket line in Waterford to pave the way for scab trucks removing disputed stock. There were more gardaí there than strikers. Similar events happened in recent weeks in Blanchardstown in Dublin, Henry Street, Dublin and Tralee, Kerry. Why such an overwhelming show of force to remove stock that the State says is of little value? It is because the State wants to defeat the Debenhams workers for fear that their example will encourage others, but their example will encourage others. It will encourage the workers who will be made redundant in the autumn when their companies go into liquidation.

The Dáil can support the passage of Second Stage of this legislation tonight and urgently and speedily progress it through Committee and Remaining Stages or it can postpone its progress for 12 months and let new Debenhams-like struggles flare up and the demand for change double and treble from the streets and the picket lines. Either way, Dáil Éireann should be clear that this issue is not going to go away.

10:10 am

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I commend all of the Debenhams workers who will be watching this debate today. They have been a shining light in the past 15 months of darkness and they have given many working people a fillip and a sense of solidarity. It has been a horrendous 15 months for everybody in Ireland and across the globe. Throughout summer, autumn, spring and winter, these workers stuck it out and stood together. Throughout a global pandemic, they wintered this one out in order that they and other workers can summer anywhere.

In years to come, the folklore of trade unionism and solidarity will look upon this strike as it did the anti-apartheid Dunnes Stores strike and the strike at the Clondalkin Paper Mill. That is a folklore of working people who stood up against their bosses with solidarity and support for their fellow workers now and in the future. This is a strike that challenged the concept of workers who gave their sweat and guile, that is, who gave their all, some of them for many decades, while at the same time a profitable company, Debenhams, let them down badly. At the heart of this strike is fair redundancy for decades of service to a company.

The strike will come to an end, as all strikes do. It will, probably, come to a conclusion in the next few weeks. Each worker will want a fair settlement, but they all also want to ensure that workers will never again find themselves in the situation of having to picket for a long time, be subject to police harassment and, sometimes, be maligned in the media. It is important to remember what this strike is about. It is about a fair settlement for workers who have given their all in terms of service, while at the same time they have been maligned not only by Debenhams but certain parts of the Government.

This strike is important. The Duffy Cahill report, like other reports in respect of which nothing has happened, has been placed on a shelf. There is a reason nothing ever happens. The Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties are the parties of the bosses. They are not on the side of workers. Regardless of what has been said by either party, they pay only lip service to workers. If they were on the side of workers, the Duffy Cahill report would have been implemented by now and it would have prevented what has happened in the last 15 months. That report should be implemented such that when this strike ends, the Debenhams workers will get a fair settlement for the work they have done over the last decade and this will never happen again.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I think and, I hope, that when the names of taoisigh, tánaistí and Deputies who were in office over the past year have been long forgotten, the memory, inspiration and the legend of what the Debenhams workers have done over the past 15 months will still echo through the annals of working-class history. I have no doubt people will be singing songs, reciting poems and writing plays about what these workers have done, as was done in respect of the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strikers, because they were fighting in the most inspirational and determined way for something that is right and good, but not just or themselves although that is how it began. These people have been fighting against the shocking treatment they suffered at the hands of a company for which they had worked loyally for decades. What is truly inspiring about the Debenhams workers is that they continue that fight even though they now know that the Government is not going to do the right thing by them and ensure that they get their two weeks statutory plus two weeks, the redundancy entitlements agreed and which they should have got. Despite that, they carry on because they know it is important to fight for others, to make sure that what they went through is not inflicted on other workers. That is what heroes do. That is inspiration and that is what will be remembered long after the cowardice and inaction of the Government have been forgotten.

There is no doubt but that the Government, in claiming there is nothing it can do for the Debenhams workers, is hiding its true priorities, which, always, are to ensure and protect the interests of big business ahead of the interests of working people. No matter what the Government says to the contrary, this is clearly the case. As stated by Deputy Barry, it is not as if this is the first time this issue has come in front of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. I refer to La Senza, Vita Cortex, Clerys and Arcadia, in respect of which, as in the case of Debenhams, there was no action. We had promises, expressions of concern and commitments to do things in the future, but nothing done. If one reads between the lines of many of the comments that were made in the pathetic excuses for the inaction of the Government, there is always the little whisper of "We do not want to do anything that would deter the investors." That is the truth of the matter. It is the reason for the Government's inaction. As with the housing crisis that we are currently facing and the cuckoo funds, lurking behind the pathetic excuses and inaction is the unwillingness to take on big business interests, to challenge them and say that justice for working people and fairness for working people should come before the hunger for profit of big business.

In the case of Debenhams and all the other examples I mentioned, we are talking about cynical, ruthless big business that is willing to just toss workers on the scrapheap regardless of the human consequences in order to guarantee its profits and interests. However, the Government is unwilling to do anything about it. That is shameful because who was it who generated the value in Debenhams, the reputation and the value of its brand? Who generated the wealth of that company? It was the workers, but they are at the bottom of the queue when it comes to actually benefiting from the liquidation of the assets. The Government is unwilling to change that. Even now, when it has said it will do something about the matter, it puts down a countermotion to defer the Second Reading for a year. Why? It is because it wants to make sure that we do not upset big business instead of just saying that Debenhams has finally shown us that we must put the workers first. It seems this thought is unthinkable for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They have never done it before and have no intention of doing it now.

The Minister can rest assured that while this particular phase of the Debenhams dispute may be coming to an end, these workers will not give up. It was truly inspiring to see Karen Guerin from the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike standing with the Debenhams workers outside the Dáil a week or two ago. These are the sort of heroes who actually bring about change. It was a point James Connolly many years ago when he pointed out that it is the working people who have always brought the changes. It has never been the people at the top who did so. It was always working people who fought for progressive real change to benefit the majority.

The Debenhams workers will undoubtedly stand in the great pantheon of workers who have fought for real change on behalf of the majority of working people in this country. If this Bill is eventually passed or any reform is achieved, and I have no doubt it will be, it will be because of the determination, heroism and grit of those Debenhams workers. It has been truly an inspiration to stand with these workers on the picket lines. They are some of the most remarkable people I have ever met. What they have done goes so far above and beyond the call of duty. They have shown utter selflessness, particularly in the past few months when it became so clear that this Government was not willing to do anything, and bravery in the face of the outrageous behaviour we saw in Henry Street and in Waterford in the past week or so when gardaí, some of whom were in paramilitary garb, were sent in to drag mostly women - mothers and grandmothers - off picket lines in order to facilitate strike breakers. That really says it all. The guardians of the peace are sent in by someone. I do not know who it is. Is it the Government or the Garda Commissioner? They are certainly sent in to do stuff they should not be doing. That involved facilitating the use of force against these workers who are fighting a just cause - a cause that even the Government has had to admit is just - to facilitate strike breakers taking away the stock that was workers' bargaining chip in their fight for justice. It was truly shameful but the shameful nature of that action and the Government's inaction when it came to intervening on behalf of these workers and, indeed, changing the law to ensure it never happens again to another group of workers is not lost on the vast majority of working people.

I have no doubt that the Debenhams workers will prevail in the end but it will certainly not have been with any help from this Government, which has sat idly by while they have stood on picket lines in hail, rain and snow throughout this pandemic, fighting for justice and the right cause on behalf of every worker in this country. We know there will be more like them. There will likely be a retail massacre, with more workers facing the injustice the Debenhams workers have faced. At that point, the inaction and excuses of this Government will stand truly exposed. In the end, the Debenhams workers will prevail.

10:20 am

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following: Dáil Éireann:

— acknowledges the exceptional challenges faced by many workers across Ireland as a result of the global pandemic;

— acknowledges the Government’s commitment to further enhance the protection of employees in a way that does not unduly impede enterprises in the conduct of their business;

— resolves that the Companies (Protection of Employees’ Rights in Liquidations) Bill 2021 be deemed to be read a second time this day 12 months, to allow time for:
— legislative proposals in the areas of insolvency and redundancy law;

— the provision of enhanced information in relation to those remedies designed to secure the protection of employees that are already a feature of the existing legal landscape;

— legislative proposals in the area of company law that are material to the protection of workers as creditors; and

— the establishment of an independent forum that will consider employment law issues into the future with membership to include stakeholders such as employee and employer representatives as well as employment law and other legal experts.

Along with many other Deputies, I offer my sincerest sympathies to the former staff of Debenhams. It is a difficult experience for workers to lose their jobs. It is an experience that many workers across Ireland are having at this moment as a result of the global pandemic. I sincerely thank Deputy Barry for bringing this Bill before the House. It is timely and affords the House the opportunity to discuss a very important issue, particularly in view of the fact that, in the programme for Government, we committed to enhancing employee rights as creditors.

Before we go into the detail of what is proposed in the Bill, I want to challenge the assertion that the Government has done nothing to help the workers of Debenhams. This Government and officials in relevant Departments have engaged with the workers, Mandate and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. The job loss response protocol was put in place to ensure that all available supports and information would be provided to the former workers, including welfare entitlements, job search assistance and upskilling opportunities. This was reinitiated during the summer following my engagement with Deputy Paul McAuliffe and former Debenhams workers to ensure that no one missed out on available supports and information for workers. The Government appointed Kevin Foley to independently review the Debenhams situation. It is worth noting that in his independent report published in December, he stated that the 2016 collective agreement had no legal application in 2020. The fact is that the State stepped in to provide redundancy payments - confirming that there was no money or asset there. In recognition of the exceptional circumstances of this case, as reflected in Kevin Foley’s report, the Government was willing to allocate a fund of €3 million to be administered by SOLAS to support career guidance, training, education and pre-retirement planning for the former Debenhams workers. This was in addition to the €13 million in redundancy payments provided by the State. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Scienceand SOLAS have been engaging with Mandate over recent weeks to provide clarification on the proposed design and operation of the support. Recently, the Labour Court provided mediation advice requesting that trade unions consider making arrangements to allow their membership consider the clarified arrangements in a second ballot. I understand that the national shop stewards group agree that the €3 million fund will be put to the former Debenhams workers for a second ballot. I welcome that.

The Government has done all that it can to ensure that former Debenhams workers' legal rights and entitlements were vindicated. Indeed it went further in this instance in recognising the significance of the situation. This has been clearly outlined in the report by Kevin Foley published in December. What Government did not do was unfairly build up former Debenhams workers' expectations of what could be done. It is entirely regrettable that this happened - at the their expense - and that some exploited their situation for political gain. It is heartening to hear Deputy Barry finally recognise on the floor of the House that no legislation could have retrospectively dealt with this situation.

I appreciate that Deputy Barry's intentions in the Bill are in good faith. However, he can appreciate that putting forward proposals for additional preferential creditor status to be given to a particular class of employee - in this case collective redundancy - raises considerable complexities.

First, I wish to address the purpose of the Bill, which in essence seeks to put one class of employee as preferred creditor above another in a redundancy situation, and which has the knock-on impact of creating a secondary class of employee in redundancy. Preferential payments are provided for under section 621 of the Companies Act 2014. A preferential creditor is one whose debts are deemed to be more important than the debts of another creditor. As the Deputy is likely to be aware, employees are already considered preferred creditors in terms of wages owed, outstanding holiday pay, sick pay, pension scheme contributions and statutory redundancy. Preferential debts also include rates and taxation claims and so the State is also a preferential creditor. When a company is winding up, preferential debts rank equally. If there are insufficient funds with which to pay all preferential creditors, that is, employees, claims are to abate in equal proportions, and in situations of insufficient funds for statutory entitlements, the State steps in via the Social Insurance Fund, which is what happened in the Debenhams case.

It is important to remember the current law is a result of careful balancing of the various rights of creditors, including employees. While preferential payments are facilitated under company law, their legislative basis and the policy underpinning them comes from other areas, such as employment and tax law. The aforementioned section 621 refers to those relevant provisions in other legislation. The Bill proposes to amend section 621 to provide that any redundancy payments and entitlements agreed under any contract of employment or agreement or custom and practice are included in the list of preferential payments in a winding up and provide that payments due to those employees who have been made redundant as a result of the employers' insolvency shall have priority to all other debts. As this Bill concerns providing additional rights to employees, it is more a matter for employment rights rather than company law. On that point, I wish to inform the House that the Government is committed to further enhancing the protection of employees in a way that, unlike this Bill, does not impede enterprises in the conduct of their business. I will elaborate on those proposals shortly.

The Bill proposes creating a special class of redundant worker in the event of the employer being insolvent with legal rights that go beyond those of workers who are made redundant generally. To do so would represent the State picking and choosing certain workers over others as being more deserving of payments. This would neither be fair nor proportionate. Not all redundancies are a result of insolvency situations. Redundancies can occur for other reasons such as an employer restructuring or downsizing, but the business will continue to trade. Those employees would be at a distinct disadvantage if the company is not insolvent and would only be legally entitled to statutory redundancy.

It is also important to remember that Ireland's system of industrial relations is based on a voluntary approach and collective agreements are not binding in law. The effect of implementing this proposal would be to elevate the collective agreement to a statutory footing in insolvency situations only, with the State ultimately bearing the cost. It should also be noted that many creditors are SMEs and microenterprises, which themselves are providing jobs. Were the workers to be moved ahead of other priority creditors and secured creditors, there undoubtedly would be a risk to the jobs of the staff engaged in those creditor companies. It must also be noted that in creating a special class of redundant worker, as provided by the Bill, there would be a potential impact on State creditors, including the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection, recouping moneys owed, which would also be a major concern and would, in turn, further deplete the Exchequer and the Social Insurance Fund.

I wish to turn now to the Government's commitment to further enhance the protection of employees in a way that does not unduly impede enterprises in the conduct of their business. To that end, both the Minister of State, Deputy English, and I have jointly looked at the legislative provisions that deal with redundancy and insolvency from both an employment law and a company law perspective. We have had a number of engagements with trade union representatives. We have set out a number of actions which combine legislative amendments in the areas of insolvency and redundancy law, as well as the provision of enhanced information on those remedies designed to secure the protection of employees that are already a feature of the existing legal landscape. In parallel, legislative proposals in the area of company law that are material to the protection of workers as creditors are also included. I concede that progress is slower than I would like in this area and I would like to see faster progress in the coming months. While the amendment refers to 12 months, it is certainly not my intention that it would take that long.

Reference was made to the general scheme for a Bill providing for the small business administrative rescue process, which will amend the Companies Act 2014 to provide for a new dedicated rescue process for small and micro companies and, once enacted, will ensure the mechanisms are in place to protect jobs and prevent future redundancies as much as is possible. The Company Law Review Group, CLRG, has made an initial report into the rights of employees as creditors, and we have used the opportunity of this Bill to include amendments to progress recommendations made by the CLRG regarding the provision of information to employees as creditors in a liquidation.

10:30 am

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I need two more minutes or even a minute, with your indulgence, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Minister of State will get a chance to come back in.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I will not be here. The amendments provide for a specific employee representative on the committee of inspection, which can be established to oversee liquidations.

Phase 2 of the CLRG work programme, which is currently under way, looks at addressing the practice of trading entities splitting their operations between trading and property. It will report in quarter 3.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I must interrupt the Minister of State.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I confirm that it is my full intention to honour the commitments made in the programme for Government and will do so over the coming months. It will not take the full 12 months.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I thank the Minister of State for enlightening us on his intentions in the coming period. He said progress has been slow but I want to ask him how slow does he think slow is. What I find interesting is that now that he is in government, he seems to accept the fact that since 2015 when the Clerys debacle happened, there was a recommendation from Duffy Cahill to push up the priority of workers in terms of redundancy legislation in circumstances of liquidation. If he was on this side of the House, on the Opposition benches, he would be kicking and screaming about that, but now that he is in government he has put forward an amendment that kicks the can down the road for another year. We already have a wait of six years and the Minister of State proposes to extend it to seven, yet he has just said that he has no intention of it taking another year. He should amend his amendment and tell us how long it will take to change the legislation to bring workers in this country who are victims of liquidation, often tactical liquidations by companies that buy up companies that buy up companies and want to ditch the legacy of those workers, up to speed with legislation in countries like France, Portugal and Greece, to name a few countries that put workers first in those type of liquidation situations.

That is what the Debenhams dispute has been about. It is about justice, fairness and recognising the role of workers in all that happens in society, whether it is running a shop, a hospital, a school or the public transport service. It is so ironic that they managed to run a strike during the entire pandemic when what was shown to everybody was that workers matter. Their lives, jobs, efforts and labours are at the heart of everything that functions in society and the pandemic showed us that very clearly when we came to rely on the efforts of essential workers just to keep the basics of society going. I do not think it is good enough for the Minister of State to table this amendment, to kick the can down the road and then to say to us that he does not intend it to be that slow. If he does not intend it to be that slow, then he should tell us he is bringing his own Bill before the Dáil next week, like a good Fianna Fáil Opposition backbencher would have done back in the day, but now that he is in the comfortable position of being a Minister of State, he is kicking it down the road. If it is not 12 months, then he should not put 12 months into the amendment. It just does not make sense.

I wish to make a couple of points in addition to all that has been said about this dispute. In his response, the Minister of State said he has been very good about making sure that workers knew what their welfare entitlements and supports were and that they received their statutory redundancy, but I have got news for him. They are not entitlements that are handed down by him, by Deputy Varadkar or by anybody else, they are entitlements that are there for every citizen in the State. The redundancy pot that is there for the statutory redundancy they were paid was funded by them. Many of them had more than 20 years or 30 years of service and they paid their full social welfare contributions into the Social Insurance Fund.

They paid for their own statutory redundancy. It was not some gift from the gods of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to hand to them, nor was the knowledge of their welfare entitlements or the supports they are entitled to now, in the prime of their life, when they are being dumped on the scrapheap with no options other than a €3 million fund to go back to school. I have never heard anything so insulting to mothers, grandmothers, experienced workers and those who have given most of their lives working in the retail industry, making vast profits for companies, as saying "There you are girls, go back to school." It was a shameful insult. They are voting on it and it is likely that it will be accepted, but it is only because there is nothing else for them. The Government has done nothing for them except to tell them what they are legally entitled to, which they knew anyway. I could have told them that, as a constituency representative of many of them.

The Government should not insult them by saying it has done everything it can. The Minister of State, his party and the Government were dragged, kicking and screaming, by those workers into even meeting them and their unions. The Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, was dragged, kicking and screaming, because he was ashamed of what those amazing women were doing on the picket line in St. Patrick's Street in Cork. The Government has done all it can but all that it can do is not enough.

When we compare how those workers have been treated with how banks have been treated, how industry has been treated, how the bailiffs who were on their heels all the time, KPMG, have been treated by the State, it is quite shocking. In order just to wind up Anglo Irish Bank, which brought this country to a massive collapse, the State paid KPMG €175 million. When we delve down into the role of KPMG throughout the fabric of finance and the secret world of banking and finance in this country, we find they got €11 million to advise us on broadband, a fiasco that ended up costing us more than €3 billion, so they got €11 million for bad advice. They also got millions from banks like AIB, which paid them €50 million for auditing their books between 2002 and 2009, and the audit was so good they told none of us what was coming down the track and that there was about to be a collapse in AIB or, indeed, in the other banks they audited.

There is a different set of rules for those who act as bailiffs, even for the security companies which went in during the wee hours of the morning and broke through the picket lines with the help of extraordinary protection from gardaí. They went in and they pulled women and some men out of those picket lines at a number of stores, and they did that on the basis of the protection provided by this State. Guess what? We were under level 5 restrictions at the time and pandemic public health rules were broken. Ironically, given who will be talking about later and how we are going to regulate them, it was those regulated security firms and bailiffs who actually broke public health guidelines, with the collusion of State forces and with the Garda Commissioner standing over that, but nothing happened. Fines have been issued to ordinary working-class people, particularly youths, throughout the country for breaches of public health guidelines, but nothing for these companies which broke those guidelines and used force to remove the pickets.

Deputies Boyd Barrett and Barry referred to the role of workers. The Minister of State indicated that the Government met and spoke to ICTU and Mandate. That is fine because they are the official representatives of workers in this country. However, when we say that nothing changes except from below, that is true. Slavery would still be a dominant means of trading labour across the globe if the slaves themselves had not revolted. Change always comes from below. Women would not have the vote unless women revolted and insisted on getting the vote. We would not have abortion rights, limited and all as they are in this State, without the big mass movement of Repeal the Eighth. I could go on.

In the case of Debenhams, we would not have had resistance that was persistent, that shone a light on the injustice to workers and that gave us all a sense of comfort and inspiration that we can actually fight back against an unjust system without the efforts of the rank-and-file workers themselves. Regardless of who we speak to in the official trade union movement, at the end of the day, the people who matter are those men and women who are on the picket lines, the grannies, the mothers and the sisters who stuck it out through the wee hours on cold winter nights in order to make sure that they kept the one piece of armoury they had to shine a light on the injustice, namely, the stock that they protected from being taken from the stores by means of their persistent picketing. That was done by them, not by ICTU, Mandate or anybody else. It was done by them. That is why the recognition of those workers is fundamentally important.

The workers were dragged into the High Court by the previously mentioned KPMG, to which this State paid millions and millions. One of them was humiliated, not in her terms, but they attempted to humiliate her in the High Court and issued threats about her behaviour. Think of the resources that have been spent in court and on lawyers and gardaí to protect a company which is imposing an injustice on these workers.

I am talking to a Minister of State whose party has been in government since 2015, although the other Minister of State’s party was not because he was in opposition. The reason this could happen is because they have failed to legislate on the back of the Duffy Cahill report. Those in the Government commissioned the report and got them to come out with a view on liquidations, redundancies and the preferential treatment of workers, and then did nothing. They sat on their hands for almost six years and now we are being told they want to sit on their hands for another year. All I can say is, "Shame on you". The people of this country really need to know what they are doing. They are kicking down the road again and again the rights of workers. As we see more and more connived and contrived liquidations taking place in retail, and the young people everybody has been talking about in the past few days being dumped on the scrapheap of unemployment, shame on them that they are not prepared to act now. The Government should withdraw the amendment and allow the Bill to pass Second Stage today.

10:40 am

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I call Deputy Louise O’Reilly. A number of Sinn Féin speakers are sharing time.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. I thank the Deputies for bringing it forward and for facilitating the debate.

I want to ask the Government when, for the love and honour of God, is it going to be the right time. From what I can see, it is never the right time for this Government - like the previous Government and the one before that - to do the right thing by workers. It is never the right time for workers' rights. Those rights can always wait. It is never the right time to legislate to protect workers. That can always wait. Other factors always have to be considered.

Yesterday we discussed the behaviour of the real estate investment trusts, entities the Government invited into this State, with tax breaks and everything else, and now look what they are doing. Of course, it was the right time for them. Now, all Ministers and the people who were in government with them at the time are out to defend them, saying, "We had to do it", "It was a crisis situation" and "We absolutely needed to do it". When is the crisis going to hit in regard to workers? It was a crisis situation for Debenhams. It was a crisis situation for Clerys. It was a crisis for the workers in TalkTalk. It was a crisis for Vita Cortex. It was a crisis for Paris Bakery and La Senza. We could go on and on, yet it is never their time. It is never the time to legislate. Workers’ rights can always wait. They can always be put on the long finger by this Government.

It is shameful. I urge the Minister of State to withdraw the amendment and to work with the Deputies on this side of the House, those who are interested in advancing workers' rights and advancing protections for workers.

There is a great deal of talk about what we can legally hold onto and what is technical. In fact, when agreeing a collective agreement with an employer, there is give and take. I want to pay tribute to the workers in Debenhams because their courage, their bravery, their tenacity and their dignity in the face of what the State has thrown at them is a lesson to all of us. When reaching a collective agreement, there is give and take. It is never just about what the workers want and there always has to be compromise. They compromised with their collective agreement, they compromised on their custom and practice arrangements and everything else. Then, when push came to shove, all the compromising was on their side and the boss could make out like a bandit, and just head off into the sunset and leave them with nothing, after 30-odd years there.

I do not know how the Minister of State can stand over that. I do not know how he can look into the faces of the mostly women workers in Debenhams and say to them, "It is just not your time now; we will legislate at some point in future but just not now."

I sought a remedy with the Clerys workers. When Clerys closed the workers begged the Government at the time to do something and intervene to give them a dig-out or a hand. What did the Government do? It brought staff from the Department of Social Protection in to Liberty Hall. I was never as ashamed in all my life. They turned Liberty Hall into a dole office. That was the best the workers were offered. Then, when there was a clamour and cry and public outrage, there was a report. That report has sat on a desk or shelf and God knows where it is now because no one seems interested in implementing any of its findings.

The workers were assured that some action would be taken. They were given social welfare. As the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, outlined, they will have all their minimum entitlements, but they get those under the law in any event. That is all they got. There are nice words. A dictionary full of nice words were spoken by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, the Fine Gael-Independent Government and from the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party Government. Governments say they would love to help but it is simply not the right time. They will do something but not now.

Retail is facing an absolute catastrophe. According to Mandate, we need a new deal for retail workers. These are young workers. They are at the business end of the failure by successive Governments to legislate to protect their interests or protect them at work. These are vulnerable workers. Some are heading back after this pandemic to the status quothe Government created but others will not do so. What has the Minister of State to say to those workers? Will he say that now is not the time or that the Government would love to talk about workers' rights but not today? Will he say that the Government would love to protect the rights and entitlements of workers and collective agreements but not now? When will the time come for workers' rights? Everything seems to get kicked down the road.

I commend the Debenhams workers and the Deputies on bringing forward this legislation and thank them for providing an opportunity to discuss it.

10:50 am

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I too thank Deputy Barry for bringing forward this Bill and for his continued commitment to highlighting the plight of the Debenhams workers. It is a cause close to my heart as I have supported the Debenhams workers in Newbridge on several occasions. We were successful in repelling the efforts of the liquidator and the haulage companies that facilitated strike-breaking. Unfortunately, the liquidator broke the agreement on level 5 restrictions to remove stock from the Newbridge store. This was facilitated by the management of the Whitewater Shopping Centre.

It is six years since a liquidator was appointed to Clerys. The Government commissioned the Duffy Cahill report in the wake of that debacle and has wasted time and money by letting this report gather dust on a shelf somewhere. Unfortunately, the Government is no stranger to wasting taxpayers' money.

I will speak about An Garda Síochána and its role in this matter. Peelian principles dictate that the Garda police by consent. The force is risking that consent by siding with liquidators and landlords. This week ex-Debenhams staff in Waterford were removed from an overnight blockade of the company's store after a four-hour stand-off. The workers have a right to protest, especially against blackleg scabs who are helping the liquidators to take the bread from workers and their families. The Garda has no place in this dispute except to keep the peace. These protests and pickets have been peaceful, despite great provocation on the part of the liquidator.

We are heading towards 400 days since a liquidator was appointed to Debenhams. In that time, it has spent multiples of the money that would have given the workers what they deserve, which is two plus two or two weeks of statutory redundancy plus two weeks for every year of employment. Is that too much to ask for these workers, some of whom have been employed by Debenhams since the store came to Ireland in 1996?

I commend the Debenhams workers on their campaign, The Devil wears Debenhams. I remind constituents that no right-thinking person could, in good conscience, buy from this company or the Debenhams brand from its new owners, Boohoo.com. The company has trampled all over workers' rights. This Government needs to get off the fence and implement the Duffy Cahill report. It needs to engage with the workers to give them what they deserve. When workers' rights are under attack we need to stand up and fight back. Workers united will never be defeated. I am proud to have stood with Debenhams workers.

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Deputy Barry on bringing forward this Bill. The way the Debenhams workers have been treated in the past year has been absolutely outrageous. These workers were first abandoned by their employers and then failed by the State. We have had enough of tea and sympathy. What they need now is action. These workers have given years of service to the company. They had to stand outside their former place of employment for months in the rain, hail and cold but still there is nothing. Not only have they had to battle the elements, they literally put their lives on the line by battling through a global pandemic. Once again, the powers that be simply do not care. One worker told me that this impacted on all aspects of his life. It has taken over the past year of his life and become all-consuming. It is high time we valued workers in this State and gave them the protections they need and deserve.

The Debenhams workers have made clear they do not want any other workers to be put in the position they have been in for the past 400 days. They have worked hard all their lives. We saw from the scenes of recent weeks that they are being treated like criminals.

Let us be clear. Working people have made this country. The worst thing about all of this is that it is not new. We have been here before and we have had this discussion and debate. We have even had the recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report, but still there is nothing. We need to remember that this is having a real-life impact on people. We can talk in this room and we may say this has nothing to do with us but it has a real-life impact.

Many of the 140 people who lost their jobs in Galway had served the company for more than 30 years. Collectively, these workers served over 300 years at the company. After that length of time, they saw themselves as family. I applaud them for their persistence and express solidarity with them. They have fought hard this year and have suffered greatly. Their legacy is that this Bill should go through. They are standing up for all future workers and those who go through a liquidation. That is one legacy they can be damn proud of. I call on the Minister of State to support them in this.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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Like other speakers, I welcome the Bill introduced by Deputy Barry. We are emerging from a global pandemic. As the economy recovers, we must take a fresh approach to workers' rights. After decades of workers' rights being eroded by conservative governments, we need to ensure that in the 2020s workers' rights are at the forefront once and for all.

Previous speakers referred to how during the term of the previous Dáil the Clerys workers were left high and dry after the company went into liquidation. We were promised that would not happen again. Since then, a report on the matter has been gathering dust. Here we are in 2021 with the Debenhams workers having been on the streets for over a year protesting for basic entitlements such as redundancy and holiday pay. It is completely unacceptable and the State has a responsibility to step in.

I welcome the legislation and hope it passes to the next Stage. This should only be the first step in what should be a wave of legislation to empower workers and improve workers' rights. We need legislation that does not simply recognise the right of a worker to join a trade union but mandates or compels an employer to engage with the chosen representatives or trade union of that worker. We need an end to the casualisation of employment. Far more needs to be done to end the practice of bogus self-employment, which I have been looking at recently. Some companies are avoiding payment of their fair share of PRSI while workers are being forced to go without their entitlements such as annual leave, sick pay and pension contributions. These are basic rights that were hard-won over the decades. There can be no place for poverty pay. A report published yesterday showed that some people are earning less than their parents earned 30 years ago. Prices have escalated greatly since then. If we want workers to have security, we need to see a statutory living wage, starting at €12.30 per hour.

As we come out of Covid-19 and rebuild our economy, these are only some of the changes we need. We must address the issue of trade union recognition. We must address and deal once and for all with the issue of bogus self-employment. We must put in place a living wage rather than simply a minimum wage. Workers are entitled not only to a decent wage but not to have to live in poverty. In this decade, labour will not and cannot wait. Workers now need to get their fair share. I fully back this legislation.

Photo of Pat BuckleyPat Buckley (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Deputy Barry on bringing this important Bill to the floor of the House. I had one thought when I listened to some of the speakers but it was more pronounced when I listened to the reply from the Government side.

If this Government was a doctor, I would be very frightened. If I arrived into a hospital with a broken leg and my doctor was the Government, I would be told that it would look at my leg in 12 months. That does not make sense. I cannot believe what we are listening to. This has been going on for years. These are human beings. This is about workers' rights but the Government is talking about kicking the can down the road again and having a review. About what are we to have a review? Hundreds of people have lost their jobs, including many whole families. They have visited my own constituency office. The Government will be scratching its head in a couple of weeks or months when it is probable that a tsunami of other businesses will go to the wall and it will be saying "Jesus, we are back in the same position again. What are we going to do?" It will probably just suggest another review and see if the person's other leg is broken. That is what is coming.

While speaking about the Debenhams workers, I also want to touch on all those other workers who have suffered for years. I remember the Vita Cortex dispute in Cork. Nothing has changed. The Government is not learning from its mistakes. I cannot understand why it cannot work with the people on this side of the House. We are supposed to be here to represent the people of this country. We are talking about workers' rights, civil liberties and people's livelihoods and families. The Government should do the right bloody thing for once. It should withdraw its amendment because it makes absolutely no sense. It is an insult to the working people of this country. I appeal to the Government once more. It should do the right thing, work with the people on this side of the House and do it right.

11:00 am

Photo of Paul DonnellyPaul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Deputy Barry for bringing forward this Bill. I also thank and send solidarity and greetings to the former workers of Debenhams in my own area of Blanchardstown and the former workers of Debenhams stores throughout Ireland. Over the past year, I have spoken to many workers and to the Sinn Féin Deputies who have stood shoulder to shoulder with them. All of my colleagues spoke of these workers' steadfast determination to stand and fight for justice, and not only for themselves. The workers were talking about everyone else who was to come after them, especially those who will face redundancy in the coming months, as we know such redundancies will happen. As sure as night follows day, there will be strikes and pickets again about the same situation, just as there were before. Those to whom I spoke at Vinegar Hill - and other areas around the Blanchardstown Centre the workers have humorously renamed over the year - all spoke of their determination to stand up for other workers. They knew the chances of getting what they agreed with Debenhams were slim but they all said that, if other workers did not have to go through this, that would be their victory.

What does this Bill say? What are the workers demanding? They are just demanding that the redundancy payments and entitlements agreed with the companies be paid. These payments are due to provide for the discharge of the entitlements of workers who have been made redundant. This is a choice. The Government must choose who to put first in line, the workers, Revenue or other creditors. It is time to stop kicking the can down the road, which is unfortunately all that the Minister of State's amendment will achieve. It really is that simple. Who do we put first? Is it the people who have worked hard, struggled and ensured that a company has stayed afloat, because nine times out of ten the workers will have taken cuts and hits long before a company closes down? The choice is the Minister of State's. He should accept this Bill and not put in another amendment.

Photo of Johnny MythenJohnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein)
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I thank People Before Profit for bringing forward this Bill, which Sinn Féin fully endorses. I also thank the Debenhams workers across the country for their inspiring achievement in bringing about this Bill. The Bill proposes that the law be changed to prioritise workers, giving them the right to be placed as a top creditor in the case of liquidations. Most importantly, any unpaid redundancy agreements or unpaid collective agreements would be recognised as bona fide debts in law. For too long, the injustice of workers being placed at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to payouts has been accepted and protected by law with the complicity of the State, especially in the case of strategic liquidations, with many workers getting the horrible Weetabix notification, thus named because most such employees only find out their jobs are gone when they are getting their breakfast on the way to work. Imagine that moment. The kids are ready to go to crèche, school or college, the lunch is packed and Ma and Da are discussing their plans for the day when - bang - your whole world falls down around you This must be stopped. The scenes in Waterford in the early hours of Monday morning, when workers were forcibly removed from picket lines and corralled, must be stopped.

This is why this Bill is so important. We are failing the very people who created the wealth in these companies in the first place. The first draw made in any liquidation must be for the real priority creditors, the employees. As one Debenhams worker put it, this measure is not for them, but for their grandchild. They did not want the same thing to happen to them.

I will digress a small bit and mention the strike of ESB network technicians. I plead with the Government to use its influence, through the CEO and four members of the board of the company whom the Government appoints, to bring this dispute to an end and to recognise the mandate of the union involved.

Again, I commend all those who brought this Bill forward. This is simply a choice for all Deputies in this House. They will either favour the workers or favour the existing laws that allow employees to be placed last in line when it comes to compensation or redundancy payments. I hope they will choose the former. I also hope the Government will withdraw its delaying amendment.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I thank Deputy Barry for proposing this Bill, which the Labour Party will be supporting. Oftentimes we come in here and try to make Government the enemy. Sometimes that is theatrics and sometimes there is a genuine reason behind it. In this instance, the Government has absolutely no defence. It has no defence in respect of this issue, the treatment of the Debenhams workers or the Duffy Cahill report, which, as has been said, has been sitting on an office shelf somewhere since 2015. It is absolutely indefensible for any Minister or Minister of State to stand in this Chamber and defend the fact that the recommendations of the Duffy-Cahill report still have not been implemented. It is absolutely inevitable that we will be back here again and again. As a result of the nature of the pandemic and the capitalist society in which we operate, companies will utilise this pandemic to force through redundancies. To deal with this on a case-by-case basis is to fundamentally fail the workers. The Minister of State can list the individual things the Government has done for the Debenhams workers, but to do so is to completely miss the point.

Last November, Neasa Cahill and Kevin Duffy appeared before an Oireachtas committee. They said that company law did not need to be amended in order to implement the recommendations of their report. What did Government do in December? It asked the Company Law Review Group to review any company law that may need to be amended, despite the evidence that those who wrote the report gave to an Oireachtas committee. Now the Minister of State comes in here and insults the lot of us with a year-long delay to this Bill.

Every time we bring up issues of workers' rights, we are insulted by the Government. We were accused of virtue signalling when we brought in legislation on sectoral pay agreements. It was the same when we brought in a motion on youth unemployment and when we spoke about the lack of sick pay during a pandemic. What did the Government do? It said we will talk about it in six months' time. As we quite rightly said, no other sector of Irish society would have to wait so long - for six years - for the implementation of a report that does not go as far as this legislation. This is a reasonable report written by reasonable people which aims to prevent the very issue we are talking about today. In my own constituency, there are two instances of redundancies in Baldoyle affecting a total of 540 workers. How many more will there be over the coming months and years? Somebody in the Minister of State's position will trot in here and say that it is a difficult situation but that one must understand company law and that all of these individual circumstances are different. This will be said even though the Government has had a report since 2015 that would ensure that, in such circumstances, workers would not have to spend 400 days protesting to stand up for their rights. The Government has absolutely no defence.

We in the Labour Party pay tribute to the Debenhams workers and other workers who, over many years, have taken a stand in this regard. We are sick, tired and sore of being forced to go down to picket lines with workers who should be sorted out at the start.

There is no glory or honour from a Government point of view in saying it has respect for Debenhams workers or whatever other band of workers there may be in the future. The Government has the capacity and ability to sort this out now, so that other workers do not have to go through the same heartbreak in the future. What is the point of politics or legislative processes? What is the point of the over and back in this Chamber or of commissioning a report? What is the point in telling us that it will take one year or asking the Company Law Review Group to do its work when the Government does not do anything about a review for six years? It is absolutely indefensible. The Government has no defence.

Once again, I and Deputies from other political parties will say the very same thing and we will get another response from another Minister or Minister of State who will say "Well, you know, we will have a look." As has been correctly said, we will hopefully get a resolution to the Debenhams issue. The Minister cannot come in here in some months' time when this inevitably happens again and say, with a straight face, that this is a particular situation, as the Tánaiste is so well-practised in doing.

In any other aspect of public life or public policy, legislation can be rammed through in jig-time. This is why people sometimes lose faith in politics, Departments and Ministers. The Government asked the workers to put faith in the review and report and to trust the process, which the Clerys workers also did at one point, but six years after the report has been done, there is nothing.

I suggest that the Minister come to the House next week. We will all forfeit whatever time is necessary for the Minister to implement the recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report so that we are not back here in a number of months' time dealing with what I fear will be an inevitable cascade of redundancies, for which companies will no doubt use the pandemic as cover. There are 540 such redundancies already in Baldoyle. If this was happening in Ballyhaunis, we would all hear about it.

I ask the Minister to do his work. The Debenhams workers have done their work, having spent 400 days on the picket. None of us wants to see another band of workers go through the same thing. Six years is not good enough. I suggest that the Government do what it was asked to do six years ago by implementing the recommendations of the report. Do not insult the authors of the report by completely contradicting them only one month after they come before an Oireachtas committee.

11:10 am

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I thank Deputy Barry for bringing the Bill forward. It is most important and timely. I acknowledge and pay respect to the former workers of Debenhams who, for 400 days, have demonstrated immense dignity, respect and determination. It is a testament to who they are as people in contrast to the indifference shown to them by the State.

We have spoken about the Debenhams workers many times in the Dáil and then failed to act. In July 2020, which was nearly 100 days into the strike, most of us here spoke on this same issue, thanks to a motion introduced by Deputies Barry, Boyd Barrett and Gino Kenny. Even then, 100 days was too long for those workers to be standing on a picket line. I remember that 100 days was a symbolic date at the time. Women, men and younger workers from Debenhams had been picketing for 100 days. We all said that was simply too long and that the Government needed to act. The Government told us the workers needed to wait, we did not understand, the issue was complex, something was coming down the line, we were being naive and somehow, by virtue of its own arrogance, the Government was correct. Now, 400 days along the line, things have changed but for the worse for the workers on the picket lines.

This discussion of the Companies (Protection of Employees’ Rights in Liquidations) Bill 2021, introduced by Deputy Barry, marks nearly 400 days of strike action by the Debenhams workers. During the pandemic, we were told we are all in this together. There were high levels of solidarity, pandemic unemployment payments were introduced which were commensurate with people's dignity and sense of togetherness. We invested in public services. It really did seem that we were all in this together. In July 2020, the tactical liquidation forced on the Debenhams workers proved that to be untrue. With each passing day of indifference since then, the workers had to stand on picket lines up to the point they were forcibly removed. The Government's continuing indifference has demonstrated that we were not all in this together, some of us were viewed as lesser and the plight of some workers was considered less significant. The facade of solidarity and goodwill has fallen.

Earlier this week, the Garda mobilised in greater numbers than the number of workers on the picket line in Waterford. Gardaí used physical force and intimidation against these workers. Let us remember who these workers are. They are, in the main, women. Many are older and have devoted years of their working lives to Debenhams and, previously, Roches Stores. I have heard it said, including in the context of the debate after 100 days of pickets, that Debenhams is an institution and this is one of the reasons so much public attention had been placed on the plight of these workers. I rejected that fully then and will now. Debenhams was never an institution. Nobody particularly cares about the company but people do care about the values the workers represented and the smiles with which they greeted customers. The values and virtues of those working class people, who went in to work every day, contributed their labour, valued their work and provided a service, are what made that building an institution. It is they who have been left behind while the Debenhams shareholders were placed forward.

Weeks ago, in my constituency of Dublin Central, the Garda acted in much the same way as it did in Waterford last week. The footage and images from outside Debenhams on Henry Street and Parnell Street are very difficult to watch but I believe it is a truer reflection of how the State feels when it comes to workers' rights than any of the promises and words made by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. My mind wandered to what was happening in the operation rooms where senior members in An Garda Síochána were giving orders to younger, less senior members of the Garda who are often underpaid and overworked and conveying them that they must remove other workers. That is a sad reflection of the State. These are images we should not have to see. Workers who are underpaid should not have to remove the one tactical advantage that workers on strikes and picket lines have when trying to stop stock from being removed. It was the only card the Debenhams workers had to play. This is a sad reflection of what ten years of Fine Gael ideology has done to this country.

The Government wants us to believe the narrative that there is only so much it can do and its hands are tied. In truth, it has chosen to treat these workers, and many like them before, in this way. Government after Government has made the choice not to protect workers. A choice is made when the Government fails to implement recommendations from the Duffy Cahill report. It is a choice when the Tánaiste says he cannot ban KPMG from removing stock. It was a choice not to change the law after the Vita Cortex, Clerys and Thomas Cook closures and it will be a choice if we fail to do anything after this. It was a choice to allow workers to stand on a picket line for 400 days until it was convenient to remove them forcibly. It is a choice when the Government uses indifference over action. We were not elected to be bystanders or to turn a blind eye. We have done more to protect the stock in Debenhams stores than we have done to protect the Debenhams workers. More value has been placed on stock than on workers.

The ESRI publication on minimum wage policy last year stated that data from 2017 to 2019 showed that 8% of all employees in Ireland were on the minimum wage.

When looked at by sector, 20% of all employees in retail were in receipt of the minimum wage. These are the same retail workers who have been absolutely invaluable since the start of the pandemic. Many of us already recognise them as essential workers. Their contribution meant they were the ones who remained at work and became another front line when everyone else had to stay at home. How many of the liquidators who are forcing these closures, removing stock and somehow backchanneling with the State in order to forcibly remove workers from picket lines are also on minimum wage? Very few.

It is completely transparent whose interest the Government chooses to protect and prioritise. This Bill seeks to put workers at the centre rather than the back of queue when it comes to payments from a liquidator by transforming unpaid collective redundancy agreements into unpaid debts in the eyes of liquidation law. While the Bill is inspired by the resilience and force of the Debenhams workers, to whom I pay tribute and with whom I will stand later today outside the gates of Leinster House, we need to remember this is for all workers, past and future. Every political party across the left has stated that this will not be the last time we will be in the House talking about tactical insolvencies.

Debenhams workers are fighting on behalf of their children and grandchildren in order to protect them. They have put the issue of workers' rights back on the agenda. How the Government chooses to act will not be forgotten by Debenhams workers and the many workers like them. It is now very clear there is a line in Irish politics. It is between those political parties which have chosen to watch all those workers from Debenhams, Vita Cortex and Clerys who have been left behind by the State, that is, the parties which have acquiesced, done nothing and left the Duffy Cahill report on the shelf for six years, and those other parties which have made the choice to want and be willing to act. That is the choice the same old politics has to reckon with. If political parties do not act that is fine, but they will be replaced. That is the challenge for those of us bringing forth, proposing and supporting this legislation. It is to act now or be replaced because the line is becoming very clear.

11:20 am

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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From Clerys to Debenhams, when a company goes into liquidation ordinary workers lose out. Unfortunately, nothing has changed since the closure of Clerys. Successive governments have failed to implement reforms or protections in the liquidation process to ensure that workers get what they are entitled to. I have seen much debate in Leinster House and an enormous amount of lip service paid to the workers of this country, but I have not yet seen the introduction of the necessary laws to protect their entitlements.

In 2015, we saw the historic Clerys department store on O'Connell Street close for good, resulting in the loss of 450 jobs and livelihoods. At that time, we saw a tactical insolvency where an individual company came in and created a corporate veil between itself and its responsibilities to workers, concession holders and the State. We saw a situation where the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government at the time, carried out the Duffy Cahill report but refused to act upon it. As a result, we saw a cost to the State of €2.5 million in redundancy payments to those workers. Where is that money and the millions of other euro of taxpayers' money spent on redundances, which the State had to take care of as a result of companies not paying their fair share and not doing what they were responsible for?

At the time, I saw platitudes by the Fine Gael-Labour Government whose members talked about how terrible this was. I debated the issue then and I remember bringing about legislation which sought to pierce the corporate veil at the time. That legislation was refused by Fine Gael and the Labour Party. I do not know if anybody else saw it, but I just witnessed a fine demonstration by Deputy Ó Ríordáin on how particular political parties, when in government, ignore the needs of workers in this country. At the time, in 2015, I distinctly remember trying to convince the Labour Party Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, of the necessity of passing laws regarding the corporate veil. I saw that political party get rid of the Sunday premium, which had the effect of reducing the wages of about 200,000 low-paid workers. If anybody juxtaposes those actions from the Labour Party when it was in government with the fine performance we saw from Deputy Ó Ríordáin just a couple of minutes ago, it will show the breathtaking neck of political representatives in this Dáil.

Today, we saw the Fianna Fáil Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Troy, again offer tea and sympathy to the hundreds of workers in this country who, year after year, get stuffed by the legislation that is in place. Again, he refused, when in power, to carry out the necessary actions that would actually help these individuals. That again stands in stark contrast with the words of Fianna Fáil when it was in opposition. When it was in opposition, Fianna Fáil backed a Bill I was involved in creating, similar to this Bill, which would have meant workers were prioritised with regard to their status when it came to redundancy. Fianna Fáil is a different political party in opposition compared to when it is in government. That is what is wrong with the political establishment in this country. Politicians will put their arms around people at the gates of Leinster House, will give them tea and sympathy all they like but, unfortunately, the establishment political parties in this country will not stand up when they have the power to do something in government. It is heartbreaking to see.

This issue needs to be resolved now. It is one of many issues that has led to a serious divide in Irish society. One of the biggest problems that exists currently on the planet, and in this country, is the increasing divide between the wealthy and the rest of the population. According to Oxfam, 62 people in the world own as much wealth as half its population. In Ireland, that gap between rich and poor is increasing all the time. It is reckoned that the middle 60% of the population is seeing its wealth decrease year on year to about 45% of the average wealth of the country. The over-concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is one of the biggest problems that exists. It robs billions of people of the necessities of life with regard to decent food, water, education and healthcare but it is also one of the most destabilising elements of modern society.

There is no doubt in my mind that a number of elements have led to that divide between rich and poor and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. Taxation injustice is one of its biggest drivers but the way in which legislation governs work in this country is another. The proliferation of bogus self-employment is an incredible element within Irish society. Governments have talked about it for years but have done precious little about it. It is estimated that at least 20,000 subcontractors in the construction industry are in bogus self-employment in Ireland and that number may well be higher. That does two things. It allows certain employers not pay their fair share when it comes to taxation, it robs workers of their protections and entitlements as regards work, and it creates poverty in those working groups within the State. Workers should be employed directly. They should receive legal entitlements for the fruits of their labour. Bogus self-employment forces workers into subcontracting and allows some contractors shirk those responsibilities.

It is now imperative that these issues are addressed. The economic situation over the next number of years will worsen. That is a shocking truth being ignored by many of the establishment parties in this country. There will be major difficulties in the economy over the next number of years. A large number of retailers, both small and large, will not be able to deal with the changes within the economic environment that currently exists. We will see situations like Debenhams arise again and again. Are we simply going to have the same debate in Leinster House, or in this building which costs the taxpayer €20,000 a day to run, or will we put a full stop to this type of behaviour in order that workers have something to fall back on if they lose their jobs? We have a situation where unemployment currently stands at 25%. Youth employment currently stands at 60%. The national debt has jumped €40 billion since the pandemic started and thousands of small and medium enterprises, SMEs, have closed their doors for good in this State.

It is beyond time and imperative that we try to economically recover from the pandemic and the Government-imposed lockdowns and restrictions but that we put in place the necessary rights and legislation for workers to provide that when their employment ends, they have something to fall back on.

11:30 am

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I sincerely thank Deputy Barry for bringing this very much needed Bill before the Dáil, the content of which is "to provide for preferential creditor status to employees in collective redundancy situations; to provide for recognition of a redundancy payments in a winding up; and to provide for related matters". What we saw happening in the case of the Debenhams workers was a disgrace. This week it will be 400 days since their campaign began. The way their case culminated and finished was a disgrace. For instance, in County Kerry, these hardworking, genuine people were forcibly taken from their place of peaceful protest after all of the days and nights they spent there. I have met them late at night in the cold, the damp and the rain and have heard at first hand about their position. I remind Members that the Debenhams workers were predominantly ladies who were owed €5,000, €7,000 or up to €20,000 of their own money. It is not the company's money, it is their money that they are owed. They were extremely respectful and peaceful in their protest but they would have the right to be very angry. If any person owed that much money to another individual, it would be a criminal matter and it is appalling those people were treated in that way. The boat has now sailed for that group of people. The Debenhams workers have an interest in this area and it is very good of them to be concerned about the rights of future workers. We need to ensure we or other politicians will not at some future date be discussing other workers who have badly wronged. I want to remember those people today and the vast amounts of money involved. It was their money for which they worked damned hard but never got. It is a disgrace. I thank Deputy Barry for his genuine efforts in this regard.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I too thank Deputy Boyd Barrett for bringing this Bill before us today and for his persistent representations on behalf of the Debenhams workers. He has done his utmost, his very best, during the past 12 months to highlight their case. Those Debenhams workers have been through the mill and, as was said, they were peaceful and honourable in their protest and all they sought was their rights, to be paid their own money. It is galling to think that this company, which has all those assets and has been selling them and moving them from one place to another, has not been brought to book for it. It just shows there is a law in the country for some but not for others. I understand the company will now operate online and it has got to keep all the goods it had. That is very unfair and unjust on those workers.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement had and has a role to play in situations like this. We had other liquidations in County Kerry where small private employers of small and medium enterprises were caught out by bigger companies and those companies are back in action again, having left many people, including myself, without the money we earned and for which we work hard. They are in competition again and working away as good as ever. The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement has a lot to answer. That office should be seen to be doing its job, which I do not believe it has in many instances.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I agree with this Bill. If implemented, the legislation aims to place workers at the head of the queue when it comes to payments from a liquidator and it would make an unpaid collective redundancy agreement into an unpaid debt in the eyes of the liquidation laws. The year-long struggle of the Debenhams workers has acted as an inspiration for this Bill. The Debenhams dispute highlighted the cold cruelty of the liquidation laws to workers. A spokesperson for former Debenhams workers on Patrick Street, Valerie Conlon, said they fully supported the Bill. Two weeks ago a story emerged that members of the Garda had forcibly removed Debenhams workers from the picket line in Dublin. In doing so, the Garda's actions allowed the receiver, KPMG to break the protest and remove stock from the premises in the middle of the night. That happened at Henry Street. I cannot understand why this State has stood idly by as these Debenhams workers have been treated in an appalling manner. Many of these workers are from west Cork but no matter where they are from, they deserve to be treated like human beings and in a more respectful manner, but, as I said, the State has stood idly by.

The protection of workers' rights is a major issue in the workplace for the employer and the employee. In fairness, nearly all employers are compliant but for the odd rogue trader, which will exploit every loophole in the law to carry out these shoddy deals. As for the protection of workers' rights, those employed through work schemes with community and voluntary groups should have their rights strongly protected, as some get shoddily treated. Just because they are in receipt of a low income does not give anyone the right to exploit their circumstances. Again, 99% of community and voluntary groups are compliant but there is always the odd chancer. As I come from the community and voluntary sector, it is only right that I raise this issue. I have raised with the Minister on several occasions the need to save the Cara Lodge centre in Ahiohill in west Cork with respect to the services it was providing for the people of west Cork. The workers were shockingly treated by the HSE and are still awaiting redundancy after been booted out of their jobs, which is a scandal. I also would like to raise the issue of the community employed workers aged from 55 to 65 who are also being shoddily treated and who face being let go after the pandemic. That must be examined also.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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Is history repeating itself? We have had centenary commemorations in recent years. I attended an event commemorating of 100 years of volunteers in Granagh last Monday night. We have had the case of Debenhams workers and companies like Debenhams are taking their profits from this country and using the laws against people in Ireland who have worked to feed their families and have paid their taxes. The Debenhams workers, who have stood on the doors of the company's premises for the last 400 days, are volunteers. Not only are they fighting for their colleagues but they are fighting for every other person employed under the same rules and laws. We cannot allow this happen again. Those Debenhams workers protested for more than 400 days and nights, while their families worried about their redundancy packages on the basis of that work. Those workers have worked to support the country and the Government but yet we have allowed this to happen. We have been able to introduce legislation during the Covid pandemic just like that, but we could not introduce proper legislation to protect the Debenhams workers and other workers like them. I do not want to see history repeating itself. We cannot allow this happen not only to the Debenhams workers but to any other workers in a similar situation. We need to close the door and make sure that Ireland and our people are represented regardless of where in the world companies investing in this country are based.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I am pleased to speak in support of the Companies (Protection of Employees' Rights in Liquidations) Bill 2021, which has been properly renamed the Debenhams Bill. I will be voting for it. It is a simple, straightforward Bill putting redundant workers top of the list of creditors in the case of insolvency and it represents an important step forward. Earlier in the course of this dispute, I moved a Private Members' motion calling for legislation to implement the recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report. That report was commissioned by the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, following the technical insolvency at Clerys in Dublin. The implementation of that report would have made it much more difficult for companies to engage in technical insolvencies. It would have avoided the situation in which the former Debenhams workers find themselves in. The previous Government promised yet another review, the same tactics used to avoid taking action on the Duffy Cahill report and now with the Government's amendment, it continues to try to drag out and kick the can down the road for another 12 months.

This week will mark 400 days of struggle by the Debenhams workers.

It is a tremendous symbol of their courage and their solidarity with each other and with other retail workers who may face the same difficulties as they have. They know that legislation is too late for them but they have expressed again and again their determination to achieve change for workers in the future. I salute them for that. They have been treated abysmally over the last 400 days due to strike-breaking by the liquidators, KPMG, with the support of the Garda and the courts. Debenhams has been able to take hold of its stock. KPMG will receive a generous fee as the liquidator. The workers are now in a situation where they have to consider their position and will probably vote to reluctantly accept the offer of a €3 million retraining or back to school fund. They will not get their due under the agreement that Debenhams made with their union, for which they made considerable concessions about their working conditions.

Yesterday morning, I took part in a Zoom meeting in which the Debenhams shop stewards in Waterford explained that in the early hours of Tuesday morning, pickets found themselves facing six vanloads of gardaí, including members of the public order unit. At least on this occasion they did not seem to suffer the heavy-handed and, to put it bluntly, violent action taken by gardaí at the picket on Henry Street in Dublin. Recently the Tánaiste and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, who has responsibility for this area, spoke about the role of essential workers in the coronavirus crisis and recognised that many of these workers are low paid and have limited rights such as the right to sick pay. I would go further. The capitalist society that the Minister of State so admires cannot function at any time without the labour of working people. Having said that, I welcome the Tánaiste's words on workers' rights. I genuinely hope they are sincere and well meant and will be translated into action.

I am supporting this Bill. Implementing the Duffy Cahill report would be a good start. The ball is in the Government and Minister's court. Please do not kick it into the long grass again. That has been disgraceful. These workers deserve respect for what they have done over the past 400 days.

11:40 am

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I thank the Chair for the opportunity to speak on this important Solidarity-People Before Profit Private Member's Bill. I commend Deputies on introducing this timely legislation, the purpose of which is to improve the rights of employees in circumstances where their employer is in liquidation and the company is being wound up. It is a short Bill to amend the Companies Act 2014 and will make provision for recognition of redundancy payments that are agreed in relevant collective agreements in a winding-up of a company. The Bill also gives preferential creditor status to employees in a winding-up of a company.

The Bill is informally referred to as the Debenhams Bill in recognition of the outstanding perseverance of Debenhams workers who have been on the picket line for almost 400 days. These workers, mainly women, were blocking the removal of stock from closed premises, asking that their previously negotiated redundancy packages be adhered to.

Most Members will have seen an email sent to us earlier this week from Ms Carol Quinn. Carol told us that she worked in Debenhams in the Square in Tallaght for 30 years. Despite this length of service, she was made redundant in March 2020 via a generic email. Carol said "it was not a very nice experience" and told us that she had been the shop steward at this store for over 15 years. I say "length of service" because it is a service. People working in retail have to deal with customers, management, stock control and many other aspects of working in that sector. When employees are on their feet for long periods and have to show courtesy in the face of sometimes rude customers. It is a multifaceted and multi-skilled role. During the pandemic, retail employees have been front-line staff and should be recognised as such.

The wonderful trade union spirit can be felt in Carol’s email. She stated, "My aim at 62 is for my children and my grandkids to get better working conditions, especially in low-paid retail jobs." That is what trade union membership and industrial action are all about. We are thinking about the future of jobs and the employees coming up the ranks behind us. I hope that Covid has renewed the sense of solidarity and power in unions because we have seen a move towards individualism over many years. People are tending not to join or support unions because their own personal situation is okay or because of the increase in zero-hour contracts, precarious employment and the so-called gig economy. If only our political system could support workers as much as it does those involved in it, it would make some difference.

Yesterday, Deputy Mick Barry and his staff hosted a briefing with some of the Debenhams workers from the Waterford, Cork and Henry Street stores and elected representatives. Michelle had not had much sleep after trying to stop the removal of stock from the Waterford store on Monday night. She told us that about 40 gardaí in six Garda vans were deployed to the store, half of whom were apparently from the public order unit. The Garda has been involved in allowing KPMG to recover stock from Debenhams premises.

It is obvious that there are classist, gendered aspects to this industrial dispute, and a lack of widespread public support. The majority of Debenhams workers are women. Many of them were working there when it was Roches Stores. They have given their working lives to the retail outlet only to be shafted at the last hurdle.

The treatment of the women on the picket lines has been despicable. We have seen images of women in their 50s and 60s and some men in their 70s being roughly handled by gardaí, most severely in the recent protests at the Henry Street branch. Why are gardaí being used to break up the pickets? Surely sending in packers to gather the stock went against level 5 Covid restrictions? I do not see much comment from the Government about that. The Tánaiste is great at shedding crocodile tears in the media about workers' rights but has not explained why the Garda is policing stock during a pandemic.

This is not the first time this issue has been brought to the Dáil. We heard about Vita Cortex, Clerys and Arcadia before Debenhams. The Duffy Cahill report has been gathering dust for about six years now. If its recommendations had been implemented, this situation could have been avoided. I offer my full solidarity to all the Debenhams workers, to Jane, Michelle, Suzanne, Carol, Carol Ann, and all of the others. The Government has let them down, but they have done themselves proud. I am delighted to support this Bill.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Barry for his Bill and the conversation we can have about this and amendments needed in legislation to strengthen the rights of workers, which the Government is prepared to do. I have listened to the speeches and, like everybody else here, I sympathise with the workers in Debenhams and other workers facing redundancy in other situations because workers are the big losers in a redundancy. They lose their jobs, their careers of 20 or 30 years, their families are affected and there is an immense knock-on effect. We can have nothing but sympathy for people who are made redundant. That is why all of us have debated this matter on many occasions and tried to find solutions to prevent redundancies in future and to work with those who are made redundant to find new opportunities. That is ongoing work that we all engage in.

It is also important that we have an honest conversation about this because the conversation from many of the speakers has been dishonest. That has not helped all those in Debenhams who have worked and campaigned hard for their rights and for changes to put a better system in place for their children and grandchildren. I agreed, as did the Tánaiste and Taoiseach, that we would work with them to do that. The conversation in this debate has repeatedly been about the Duffy Cahill report that was produced about Clerys, how it would solve all this and stop redundancies and how it would have prevented the issue with Debenhams. That is not true and it is not fair to keep saying that. The authors of the report have attended a meeting of the joint committee. We have teased through all of this. I have attended the committee and we went through all the recommendations for changes. The authors stated that their report would not have prevented the issues with Debenhams because it and Clerys are two different situations. None of us likes what happened in those cases or in many other situations that resulted in redundancies, but they are different and it is wrong, untrue and dishonest to keep linking the two cases. I have asked Deputies if they have any evidence to prove such a link or that would assist me, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste or the courts in our work, concerning so-called assets and a big pot of gold that we are told Debenhams has. They should come to me or the authorities. That has not happened either in public or in private. None of those who keep saying that in the House has done that. If there is a link and there are assets, please identify them and we can have the matter dealt with.

Despite what has been said, there is legislation in place that provides protection in such situations. I will be happy to engage with any Member who can genuinely show me the connection or the assets that are supposedly hidden away or some place else that would help the workers of Debenhams. Who would not want to help them? The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and many others have repeatedly said that we will work with everybody to strengthen the position in this regard.

The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, myself, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and many others have repeatedly said we will work with everybody to strengthen the situation and try to find any resources we could within the legal system to help those who were made redundant in Debenhams.

The Bill enhances the conversation we are having here. There are two things in it. We have asked for a timed amendment. We have been working on this for the last months, probably since last July, since I sat down with the Tánaiste, Mandate and some of the workers who have been referred to here from Debenhams. We gave a commitment to review all the legislation, the Duffy Cahill report and all the other legislation to see if we can strengthen the position of people who are left in the situation, if we can make it better for them and strengthen company law to prevent companies such as Clerys who did that. That was not the case with Debenhams, or it is unproven. The people who say it is should bring forward the evidence. We have committed to doing that. We gave our word that we would do that. Those employees said to me that they had two parts to their campaign, first, to get their entitlements that they really felt strongly about and which they absolutely have the right to campaign for, and, second, to strengthen the legislation to give greater protection to workers. We are all for that and are happy to engage on that.

That is the work we have been doing for the last couple of months. As the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, said earlier, yes we wish we had got that work finished quicker but it is now complete. We are in the process of writing to all the social partners and unions involved to tease through the suggested actions from our side. I committed to going back to the committee to tease them through. I am very happy to engage and work with anyone in this House around our proposed actions and recommendations which we believe will strengthen and assist the case. That is not to say that the Duffy Cahill report was the answer to everything because that is not the case and the authors themselves have said that. The report was written specifically about Clerys. It is not that it sat on anyone's shelf or gathered dust. It was reviewed in 2017 by the various Departments and the decision was made not to proceed with it. We committed to looking at it again, and everything else, to see if we can help and that is what we have done. There are changes that we will bring forward in legislation. It will not take a year to do that. We asked for a year, a timed amendment, for all this to be completed but that process is very far on and we can move to legislative proposals straight away. We will engage with the committee on its own report on this issue, and with former Debenhams workers and everyone else to do it. It will not take 12 months but that is the timed amendment, because traditionally one asks for six or 12 months, to make sure we can get all this done. My commitment here is that it will be done.

There is another part where we disagree with the Bill, or more accurately a conversation has to be had. The Deputy talks about prioritising workers' rights. All the speeches here gave the impression that is not in place already, but it is. Workers' statutory entitlements are protected. The chair of the Labour Court has said this, so have the courts. We have paid out the money because they are prioritised in a redundancy situation, they are preferred creditors, but beyond that -----

(Interruptions).

11:50 am

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Sorry, I did not interrupt anyone else. Beyond that, we stand behind that with statutory payments and we pay out. In the Debenhams case, €13 million has been paid out for all their entitlements. I know it does not completely deal with their further collective entitlements but on the statutory rights around holiday pay, workers pay, time in lieu it is all there, whatever their entitlements are, it is dealt with. Wages and salaries of employees are protected, holiday pay owed to employees and compensation and damages for uninsured accidents is also a priority. Sick and superannuation payments are all paid out. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection did get involved straight away and over €13 million has been processed and paid out.

The conversation is around enhanced agreements in companies. They happen regularly in many companies but there are arrangements between individual companies and individual employees. They are not statutorily recognised as yet. Deputy Barry Bill wants to do that. The concern is that nobody knows where that might end up because they are voluntary agreements between companies and their employees and they could agree any terms of employment. The taxpayer and the State for decades have recognised statutory entitlements and payouts and do protect employees. The conversation this morning gives the impression that they do not. If one wants to extend that statutory payments conversation, that is the one we should have and I am all for it. It is now about 20 years since an agreement was reached around the two weeks payout per year for redundancy, so yes let us have a conversation around that to see do we or should we collectively agree to enhance that or not. It would be timely to do that after 20 years.

However, I am not sure that the argument that we should recognise and pay out on all voluntary agreements is equal or fair on the taxpayer or anyone else who is owed money from a company in liquidation. We are happy to engage. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and ourselves have teased this out here at committee and everywhere else. We are bringing forward changes that reflect the overall review of this area which we believe go some way to strengthening the legislation, certainly to make people's options and entitlements more clear because I must say again they have been given wrong information. There has been a dishonest conversation around Debenhams from the very start which has been unfair to the workers. It was not the unions that did that, it was others. That has not helped anybody. I sat with them and went through this with the workers. I have told them that we will do our part, we will strengthen the legislation which we will and that is happening now.

People said it was an insult to offer €3 million. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and all our labour organisations and statutory authorities, including the chairman of the Labour Court, Kevin Foley, worked and engaged on this to see how we could stretch the involvement of Government and stretch the law as far as we possibly could do to find additional resources to assist. An extra €3 million was found to assist these workers with their future career plans, retraining, moving to a new career, adapting to technology, and an enhanced system of training, career guidance and engagement. That is something that happened in many other cases such as Dell in Limerick years ago, funded through a European globalisation fund. The State said we could assist. We could not, under the law, assist with the other payments which were a voluntary agreement.

It is wrong to continually come in here and say that Duffy Cahill would have prevented all this. I would ask anybody, including all those who spoke here for five minutes and left, to read through all the committee debates on this, read through the reports and listen to its authors who have never claimed that. Everyone believes themselves to be an authority on what that report says, but not its authors. The report has assisted us in our thinking and we have engaged with all our social partners and beyond this week to move on our recommendations and actions which will assist here. That is a commitment and honours the commitment in the programme for Government and the commitment given to Mandate and the Debenhams workers at our Department meeting as well.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Thirteen months of heroic struggle from the Debenhams workers met with 13 months of excuses, excuses and more excuses from the Government. I congratulate the Minister of State. He managed to sum up the Government's response over more than a year in his ten minute speech which started "Of course I sympathise with the workers" - you cannot have anything but sympathy with the workers - but then went on to say that the workers' rights and entitlements are already protected in law, implicitly asking what on earth we are doing here and what on earth the Debenhams workers have been doing on a picket line for 13 months. He went on to accept that in law they are not protected, their first two are protected in redundancy payments but the plus two is very clearly not protected. The Minister of State then suggested we could have a conversation about that when we have a very good Bill before the House today that could proceed to Second Stage. If the Government has particular proposals, we could amend the Bill on Committee Stage. However, instead the Minister of State wants to have a conversation about it, that is, he does not want to talk about it at all but kick it to touch. He then had the temerity to say that there has been dishonesty around this conversation. There certainly has been dishonesty around this, and cynical politicking by the establishment parties around this issue. There is no question about that, because we have had a Government offer nothing but sympathy and excuses for over a year.

There is something deeply ironic about the arguments the Government is deploying today because for 13 months the workers were told, and we were told, that nothing can be done. The very fact that the training fund offer has been made demonstrates that something could have been done, something still can be done, and a different offer could have been made. That is obvious to anybody. Effectively, the Government's argument was retrospection. One cannot do anything backward, one cannot go back and fix this situation. Okay, let us take that at face value. We have here today a proposal that is not retrospective but prospective.

It is a proposal to ensure that no other groups of workers are treated like the Debenhams workers. That is what it is. The excuse that the Government has had for more than a year no longer holds any water. What does the Government say now? All of a sudden, it is not in favour of dealing with it prospectively either but is instead in favour of kicking it down the line. In reality, it is in favour of the problem going away.

Reference has been made to La Senza, Vita Cortex, Clerys and many other examples of workers who have faced a similar situation. A Deputy earlier made the point that the Government does not seem to learn from its mistakes. If a mistake happens over and over again, and the mistake always seems to benefit big business at the expense of workers, perhaps it is time to ask whether it is a mistake at all. Is it an accident that Government policy proceeds to protect, defend and take the side of big businesses that screw over workers, as opposed to those workers who were thrown on the scrapheap?

This Bill would place workers first in future liquidations. We have had 13 months of Government Deputies and Ministers, some of whom have visited picket lines, shedding tears about the former Debenhams workers. Now is the time when they get the chance to put their money where their mouth is. If they do that, they will reject the Government's proposal to kick the issue down the road and delay the Bill for another 12 months, and would instead pass this legislation today.

I pay tribute to the Debenhams workers for the heroic chapter they have written in Irish and labour history. It will continue to serve as an inspiring example to other groups of workers who, unfortunately, will be faced with the same situation in the coming months and years as the Government lets these companies away with it. It has shown workers they can struggle and fight back. However, through that struggle, they have also shone a light on many truths about our society. One of those truths is the nature of the State we have and in whose interests it operates. Nothing made that clearer than when members of the Garda went in heavy-handed and attacked former Debenhams workers on the picket line. The workers and their supporters were manhandled and dragged out, thrown around and onto the ground, in order to break their picket lines. On Monday, 40 gardaí and six police vans were used to break up a peaceful picket and to support scab trucks taking stock out of the Waterford shop. If we had a police force that was genuinely designed to protect the interests of all, the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, would be resigning because of the Garda's facilitation of illegal, non-essential work to break a legitimate strike and protest. It is clear to people that the Government, the Garda and the processes at work here serve the interests of the likes of Debenhams and not the interests of its workers.

12:00 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I will reply to some of the comments made by the two Ministers of State in the course of the debate. There is no argument whatsoever from anyone who is a serious observer of Irish labour law but that the proposals in the Cahill Duffy report would significantly improve rights for working people in this country. The report has laid on the Minister's desk for five years now and the recommendations within it have not been acted on. The Minister of State has some brass neck coming into the House and lecturing socialist Deputies on the issues of workers' rights and honesty, about which I will talk in a moment.

Would the implementation of the proposals in the Cahill Duffy report have improved the situation for Debenhams workers? The Minister of State says categorically they would not but Mr. Cahill and Mr. Duffy do not say that. I was at the relevant committee meeting and I listened and questioned, and took careful notes. What I took from what Mr. Cahill and Mr. Duffy said was that their recommendations may not have improved the situation for those workers but, on the other hand, they may have done. They could not categorically answer the question and the Minister of State is twisting their words. A lot boils down to the question of the value of the stock and the value of the online business that was taken from underneath the noses of the workers.

It is the Government Deputies who have been dishonest in this debate, first and foremost the Fianna Fáil Deputies, who have wandered down to picket lines and been photographed for newspapers, standing with the workers, but who then will line up behind the Minister and vote to defer the Debenhams Bill for a year.

On social protection, workers paid into that fund every week for ten, 20 or 30 years. One of the Debenhams workers had more than 40 years' service. The Government should not try to pretend it is being generous by paying that money back to them. In fact, back in the day, the State put 60% into that fund and the workers put in 40%. The Government cut that back during the austerity years and now the workers have to pay 100%.

The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, said there will be a two-tier payment system through which some workers will get paid a collective agreement rate while others will get paid the statutory rate. He is technically correct. Would that not provide an incentive to workers who are in non-union jobs to get collective agreements? To do that, those workers would have to organise and unionise. I suspect that is the real fear of Fianna Fáil on the issue. In the opening sentences of his contribution, the Minister of State said that my proposal was timely and, in the next breath, he supported an amendment that would put it back for 12 months. The Minister of State should make up his mind where he stands on the matter.

The other Minister of State, Deputy English, said that the Government will have its act together on this in less than 12 months. I would suggest it should withdraw the amendment but if it is not prepared to do so, do not delay the legislation by 12 months. Delay it by three months or six months, if the Government must. It will not do that because it wants to kick the can down the road for as long as it possibly can. Why? I know, the Government knows and the working people of this country know. There is a jobs massacre coming up in the autumn when State supports will be withdrawn. Nowhere will that be felt more keenly than in retail. We want the protections for workers to be put in place and we have a sense of urgency about it. The Government does not want those protection put in place, which is why it is kicking the can down the road.

This is the anniversary of the execution of James Connolly, one of the greatest ever fighters for workers' rights. It is, therefore, a good day to have a vote on an issue such as this. We know on which side we will be. On which side will the Minister of State, Deputy English, be?

Amendment put.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time later today.