The Government has been urged to introduce a legally binding mediation scheme to prevent high rents from collapsing the struggling retail sector.

Managing Director of Retail Excellence Duncan Graham told an Oireachtas committee today: "All landlords should at the very least be offering a two-month rent amnesty to commercial tenants."

Failing this, Retail Excellence - which represents 2,000 retailers in Ireland - said a mediation scheme is required.

Responding to Sinn Féin TD Louise O'Reilly, Mr Graham said it could be "something like the WRC [Workplace Relations Commission]", operate on a temporary basis, and issue legally binding decisions.

The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment is considering the challenges facing the retail sector following the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Graham said that while revenues plummeted, retailers "spent a lot of money and time" to make their work places Covid-safe.

"Confused messages" from Government on the easing of restrictions led to "huge expense on season-specific stock" which has had to be discounted, he told the committee.

There were 2,000 more commercial vacancies at the end of 2020 as compared to a year earlier, he noted.

The Irish operations of UK-based outlets, in particular, were already in a difficult position before the pandemic hit. "Covid-19 and the rent crisis put them over the edge," Mr Graham said.

Where a landlord is available to sit down and talk, he said that retailers generally seize that opportunity. Shopping centres are particularly difficult, he said, noting that in Blanchardstown there are many vacant units.

Head of Retail at ECCO Shoes Keith Rogers said that there are 31 empty units on Henry Street, and 13 on Grafton Street.

Asking the committee to "give us a leg up", he appealed for supports to be continued into 2022 while the post-Covid landscape emerges.

Support for a recruitment drive would also help, he said, as would tax incentives for landlords to refurbish commercial properties in town centres.

"Shopping is the number one hobby in Ireland - and will continue to be so," Mr Rogers said.

'We need to reimagine the sector', committee told

Deputy O'Reilly cited figures she had obtained from the Tánaiste's office which revealed that over three years, the WRC recovered more than €1m in unpaid wages in the sector, which she said does not paint a positive picture. We need "decent jobs", she said.

Macdara Doyle, Retail Sector Group Coordinator, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, said that retail workers account for 19% of PUP recipients, a larger proportion than any other sector. He said we need to "transform bad jobs into good jobs and meaningful careers", and to "rebuild and reimagine the sector".

As a first step, ICTU wants the re-establishment of Joint Labour Committees across the sector.

Mr Graham said that "people have embraced multi-channel shopping", which is good news for larger businesses who can invest in an online presence, but is a challenge for smaller firms. The Government's Online Retail Scheme is oversubscribed and "a drop in the ocean", he added.

General Secretary of Mandate Gerry Light warned that online shopping might not be "the phenomenon that people think it's going to be", and said it needs further examination.

He agreed with Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton who said that there is a need to develop a strategy for the entire sector, in order to address, not only Covid-related issues, but also those relating to climate change.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Colm O'Rourke, owner of women's clothing chain Choice Boutique, expressed his concerns around the issue of commercial rent.

Mr O’Rourke has eight shops across the country - and eight landlords.

"The biggest outstanding concern is the issue between landlord and tenant," he explained.

"We have been left to our own devices, so in our case because we have eight stores, we have eight landlords.

"When you are up against a brick wall, it is very hard to negotiate and it is just not acceptable that in the last year where we have been shut for over 40 weeks that we would be expected to pay full 100% rent," he said.

However, Mr O’Rourke said he understands that the law of the lease requires tenants to pay in full.

"We need some form of intervention from the Government on that issue specifically," he said.

Retail Excellence was also due to tell the committee that more support is needed from the Government for smaller online retailers.

"Online retail supports totalled €11 million last year and they are now set to be more than halved this year to €5 million," Mr Graham said ahead of the hearing.

He said this will be a huge blow to smaller businesses who are dependent on more support in order to keep trading.

Mr Graham also said he hoped the restrictions on the hospitality industry would be lifted soon, particularly for coffee shops and cafes, which he said have a strong relationship with the retail industry.

Additional reporting Gill Stedman