Former Debenhams employees who lost their jobs when the company's Irish operation went into liquidation over a year ago have accepted a settlement offer involving a €3 million training fund aimed at resolving their long-running dispute over redundancy payments.
Almost 1,000 workers lost their jobs in April 2020 - and since then some have maintained pickets on the 11 stores to prevent liquidators KPMG from removing stock and progressing the liquidation.
During the bitter 406-day dispute, there were clashes between the liquidators' staff and protesters, with KPMG securing court injunctions to prevent interference with their work.
Of the 422 votes cast, 319 voted in favour, with 102 rejecting the proposals.
It's understood that the shop stewards who have been central to the 406-day campaign will meet this afternoon to consider the implications of the result - including what will happen with the ongoing pickets.
Mandate General Secretary Gerry Light described the vote as a testament to the strong will and resilience of striking members who refused to accept defeat in the face of adversity.
"We acknowledge this is not a perfect deal as it falls short of our members original demands, however, it represents the best achievable negotiated settlement under very difficult circumstances," he stated.
He said they would continue to strive to ensure the fund delivered the maximum benefit possible for former Debenhams workers, and to secure legislative changes to boost workers' rights.
The proposal for the €3 million training fund ringfenced for former Debenhams employees emerged from a process overseen by Labour Court Chair Kevin Foley - and will pay for training fees, as well as additional costs arising for travel, subsistence, childcare, uniforms and other expenses.
A €1 million ex gratia cash fund offered by the liquidators had previously been rejected.
A statement issued on behalf of "Debenhams Shop Stewards and picket line activists" continued to dismiss the offer as inadequate.
"This does not mean that the vast majority of former Debenhams workers see it as coming anywhere close to the honouring of the four weeks' pay per year's service redundancy (two weeks' statutory plus two weeks' enhanced) that we signed off with our former employer nor an adequate reward for the struggle we have waged," it said.
"Rather it is a reflection that the shop stewards and workers, in the majority, concluded that they had fought as hard as was possible and the moment was right to bring the industrial fight to a conclusion. "
The Debenhams activists criticised the Government for failing to legislate to boost workers' rights after the Vita Cortex post-liquidation occupation in 2011 and the controversial closure of Clerys in 2016.
They also accused the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste of being "...as instrumental as the Courts and the Gardaí in facilitating the scabbing operations of recent weeks."
The statement by former Debenhams workers and activists also criticised their union Mandate.
"When the redundancy announcements were made it was clear that our union Mandate were conditioned by what they saw as the normal course of events in liquidation situations, that is to say that we would have to settle for our bare statutory minimum entitlements from the state social insurance funds, which we all paid into in the first instance, and wage no fight for something better."
It accused Mandate of failing to "throw their full weight behind us" or to pressure the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to do likewise - which could have put additional political and economic pressure on government and employers.
It described Mandate as consistently adopting a "passive minimalist approach living in fear of the threat of injunctions and the Industrial Relations Act which by design is intended to make industrial struggle weak and ineffective."
The 1,000 Debenhams workers will now be able to avail of extensive training opportunities.
However, it remains unclear what level of supports will be made available for other redundant workers in similar situations, such as the 490 former workers in the Arcadia Group including Top Shop Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Miss Selfridge, Evans and Wallis.
Mandate Official Jonathan Hogan who represents the Arcadia workers said they had met the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar some weeks ago, and had demanded the establishment of a fund to assist retail workers facing job losses and displacement.
He said former Arcadia employees - who had a pre-liquidation collective agreement providing for four weeks redundancy pay per year of service - would expect "no less favorable" treatment compared to Debenhams staff.
Solas retraining fund for former Debenhams workers
The decision by former Debenhams workers has been welcomed by Mr Varadkar, who said "we need to ensure that retail workers have access to education and training options so they have the opportunity to gain new employment".
Almost 1,000 former employees will be eligible to avail of the ringfenced fund overseen by Solas which will deliver supports for retraining, upskilling or a return to education.
There will also be assistance on seeking employment, along with pre- and post-retirement options.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar acknowledged that the move to online shopping had been accelerated by the pandemic.
However, he insisted there was still a future for the "bricks and mortar" shopping experience "even if there is less of it than in the past".
He noted that the Government will also be making changes to employment law on foot of the dispute to ensure that staff receive proper notice of redundancy and clear information about their entitlements.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris highlighted that the Solas scheme would offer specialised supports, personalised coaching, and assistance with the cost of education and childcare.
"I hope this fund will offer some light at the end of a difficult road for these workers," he said.
Solas CEO Andrew Brownlee said they would work with everyone individually to find the right support to meet their needs.
The statement stressed that the state had guaranteed the statutory redundancy rights of the Debenhams workers at a cost of over €13m.
"As set out in the Programme for Government, the Government wants to further enhance the protection of employees in a way that does not unduly impede enterprises in the conduct of their business," it said.
It also pointed to a package of reforms including legislative proposals in the areas of insolvency and redundancy law.
It also highlighted company law proposals "that are material to the protection of workers as creditors", and the establishment on a statutory basis of a new Employment Law Review Group along the lines of the Company Law Review Group.