Former Debenhams employees will be able to claim for a range of supports including equipment, childcare and accommodation if they accept a €3 million retraining and upskilling fund under discussion with Solas and the Department of Further and Higher Education.  

The proposed supports represent a ringfenced package for former Debenhams employees, over and above the entitlements of other workers who lose their jobs. 

The revelation comes as workers protested to mark the first anniversary of the liquidation of Debenhams with the loss around 1,000 jobs.

The €3 million Solas fund was proposed after an investigation of the redundancy dispute involving the former workers established that the 2016 collective agreement on which they based a claim for enhanced redundancy payments had no legal application.

In a statement from the Department of Further and Higher Education it said the aim of the €3 million fund is to ensure workers have an opportunity to "retrain or reskill and to help people with the cost of going back to education".

It said "the fund can help cover the cost of college, including the cost of accessing technology, books or helping them cover the cost of childcare when they need to be in education. I hope this can help many people get back on their feet after a difficult year".

However, the workers rejected the upskilling initiative saying it did not deliver cash payments, particularly for workers approaching retirement who would not want retraining.

Further talks are now going on between officials, union representatives and staff in individual stores to clarify how the fund can be used. 

Sources confirmed that potential tweaks being discussed include allowing Debenhams workers to claim for college fees, books, equipment such as laptops, or uniforms. 

They could also claim for childcare incurred to do a course, and necessary travel or accommodation costs could also be eligible. 

The sources also indicated that some expenses incurred between the Debenhams liquidation and the Solas fund going into operation could qualify for reimbursement.

The proposals include the establishment of an oversight committee of senior Mandate officials, some of the former employees, and officials of Solas, the Department of Higher and Further Education and the Department of Social Protection.

Mandate official Robert McNamara said the initial allocation would be worth roughly €4,000 per worker, but it was not expected that everyone would avail of the fund - and there could be a second round of allocations. 

He stressed that the fund could be used to support retirement planning - a point also highlighted by the Department of Higher and Further Education, which oversees Solas. 

RTÉ News asked the Department whether other workers losing their jobs - such as the 490 Arcadia employees previously working in shops including Topshop - would receive similar entitlements. 

A spokesperson said that while engagement with the Debenhams workers was ongoing, it would be inappropriate at this stage to comment on how the fund might operate. 

However, she stressed that "...the supports envisaged under the Fund are additional to those available otherwise to anyone who has lost their job". 

She also highlighted other training supports available to people through the recently-created portal www.gov.ie/therightcourse. 

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Protests held to mark first anniversary of Debenhams liquidation

Protests have been held to mark the first anniversary of the liquidation of the Debenhams chain in Ireland.

Over the last year, a group of former workers belonging to the Mandate trade union has been maintaining pickets outside the 11 stores.

During the dispute, the liquidators obtained injunctions restraining certain parties from impeding the liquidation - and it is understood that five of the 11 stores have now been cleared, and the stock sold.

Mandate National Coordinator Brian Forbes voiced disappointment that the former Debenhams employees had been forced to strike for so long, adding that the dispute would leave a historical legacy.

"They had an agreement, their employer was allowed walk away from that agreement, which was wrong, but the liquidator and the Government had an obligation to step in, and they didn't," said Mr Forbes.

Shop steward Geraldine O'Regan said that when the dispute started, they had no idea they would still be on the picket line a year later.

"I am proud of the stance we've took and how we have highlighted the unfairness of the current legislation that's supposed to protect workers," she said.

Karen Shaughnessy from Galway called on all workers in retail and trade unions across Ireland to fight for the implementation of the Duffy-Cahill recommendations following the closure of Clerys so that workers would no longer have to go through such disputes.

Last year, an ex-gratia offer by the liquidators of a €1 million fund to be distributed to the 1,000 workers was dismissed by workers' representatives as inadequate and then withdrawn.