Irish department store workers defy lockdown, protest layoffs

By Pete Clifford
May 11, 2020

MANCHESTER, England — “We are not just numbers on a sheet, we are going to fight,” sacked Debenhams department store worker Valerie Conlon said as she joined a protest outside the store in Cork, Ireland, April 21. Some 2,000 Debenhams workers across the Republic of Ireland were told by email April 19 their jobs had been eliminated after the company went into liquidation. Protests backed by the Mandate union took place at 10 of the 11 stores in the republic, involving some 200 workers.

“When we heard of the jobs going, we got in touch with workers in Debenhams stores around the country and decided to take to the streets,” Jane Crowe, a shop steward at the Henry Street store in Dublin, told the Militant in a phone interview.

The Gardaí (police) stopped protesters there, ordering them to end the action. “This is nonessential, leave the area. If you fail to do so, this is an offense,” the Irish Times reported the cops as saying. They cited the government’s COVID-19 lockdown to justify their attack on the workers’ rights.

“I can’t believe the Gardaí are moving us on,” Crowe told the TheJournal, an Irish news website, as the 30 protesters were forced to leave. “They’re saying it’s not essential. To us it is essential. It’s our livelihood.” She said she felt compelled to attend the action, breaching lockdown rules in Ireland that say you can’t travel more than two kilometers (1.2 miles) away from your home. Despite the Gardaí threats, protesters continued to demonstrate on a nearby street.

“I don’t think this was an overnight decision, this was a long time coming. I think [the coronavirus] was just an opportunity,” Debenhams worker George Cardiff said at the protest in Dublin.

Mandate union representative Dave Gibney told the Militant that many workers see the Irish store shutdown as a move to try and save the U.K.-based ones. The U.K.’s largest department store chain, with 166 stores, Debenhams has faced mounting debts for decades. Its owners are planning to shut 50 of these stores.

“Putting their Irish stores up for liquidation means the company won’t have to pay the union agreed redundancy terms,” Gibney said. “The government payouts will be half that, and those who have worked for less than two years will receive nothing.”

“We just want people to understand if this happens, other companies will follow suit,” protester Aisling O’Gorman said. “They will do it to everybody.”