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Debenhams: Workers made to pay for Covid-19 crisis - nationalise to save jobs
Iain Dalton, Usdaw Broad Left chair
As a warning of the coming recession we are now entering, Debenhams went into administration in April last year, with 22 stores closing, and all but 39 of the remaining stores having rent reductions. Fast forward a year, and Debenhams is back in administration again, with more store closures looming.
First, the company disgracefully announced the closure of its Irish business, comprising 11 stores - while transferring its profitable Irish online business to the UK parent company, as well as all of the leases and assets in stores. The workforce was to receive no redundancy pay from the company.
As we've reported, workers in the stores, members of Mandate, the main Irish retail workers trade union, held protests outside stores and the Irish parliament. Since an attempt to remove assets from the store in Cork they have been holding pickets outside stores to block this.
But meanwhile, here in Britain, where a greater number of stores are due to close - 17 in total, with a few more still hanging in the balance - there has been no such campaign from Usdaw. During this crisis the union's only public action has been to issue a press release calling Usdaw "the trade union for Debenhams staff", and to call on Debenhams to recognise Usdaw.
Given the brutal way it has treated Mandate members in Ireland, where the union was recognised, it's a totally utopian position to think they'll listen to Usdaw doing less!
Since then the company has announced more than 1,000 jobs within the company are to go, as it starts to reopen its doors on 15 June, both in head office and in services in-store, such as cafés that won't be opening under social-distancing guidelines. The company is refusing to continue furloughing them, and is making them redundant with immediate effect, without any notice or consultation period.
Understandably, these workers, who didn't know their jobs were at risk until they were told they were redundant, are outraged. The restaurant manager of the Debenhams store in Sheffield told the local newspaper: "We all just feel really let down... some of my staff have worked there for more than 20 years... Debenhams is still getting help from the government. I don't understand why they need to let us go right now when they could have kept us on for another month and we'd still get furlough pay."
Debenhams is just one of a number of companies entering into administration at the moment. The latest additions to the list have been footwear company Aldo and lingerie company Victoria's Secret.
Unless a concerted campaign to defend jobs in the retail sector is waged, Debenhams may end up being the first of many big retail chains which stays in business by making workers' pay. That's why Usdaw supporters in the National Shop Stewards Network have called for a day of action of protests outside Debenhams stores on 15 June.
We'll be expressing our solidarity with Mandate members in Ireland fighting for their jobs, as well as calling for Debenhams to be nationalised to save jobs. Usdaw should be urgently raising the question of public ownership to save jobs, as outlined in the 2017 Usdaw conference proposition adopted after the collapse of BHS.
In The Socialist 10 June 2020:
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