The Minister of State for Employment Affairs and Retail Business, Damien English, has pledged that the Government will give "detailed and serious consideration" to union proposals for a levy on employers.

This would fund enhanced redundancy payments in certain circumstances.

Submitting their plan, Mandate and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions cited arrangements in Germany, France and Austria for "Levy Funds" on private sector employers, ranging from 0.66% to 0.35%.

Mandate General Secretary Gerry Light said: "This fund could be retrospectively applied to the ex-Debenhams workers, facilitating advance payment of their redundancy pay.

"Similar funds exist in several European countries and they work progressively to ensure workers get their full settlement in a redundancy scenario."

ICTU and Mandate want to see the introduction of a statutory scheme "by which, in cases of insolvency, enhanced redundancy payments provided for by way of collective agreement could be recoverable as a preferential debt and ultimately be payable by the State through the Social Insurance Fund."

Unions also raise the possibility of a mechanism whereby the State could recover monies paid out from the employer in question, where assets were subsequently realised.  

Mr Light stressed the urgency of implementing the recommendations "so workers with an employer currently in the process of liquidation can benefit from its provisions, and that future workers in similar circumstances are protected from rogue employers".

The issue has moved centre-stage due to the Debenhams dispute. Over 1,000 workers lost their jobs in April when the company's Irish operation went into liquidation.

They have been campaigning for four weeks' pay per year of service, as agreed in a 2016 collective agreement, rather than the legal minimum of two weeks per year of service capped at €600 per week. 

Last night, Debenhams shop stewards unanimously endorsed the campaign by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and their union Mandate for new legislation to bring into law the provisions of the Duffy-Cahill report.

This report examined company law and the rights of workers after the collapse of Clerys. 

If it became law, they argue, the ex-Debenhams workers would be entitled to the four weeks' pay per year of service under the redundancy terms of their collective agreement.

Responding to the ICTU/Mandate proposals, the Minister of State for Employment Affairs and Retail Businesses Damien English described them as "valuable suggestions" which would be given detailed and serious consideration by himself and the Government. 

However, he cautioned: "The proposals and examination thereof will require further detail and in this respect I would welcome further ICTU input, specifically any detail you are able to provide on international examples as referred to in your correspondence."

He also noted that the proposals would necessitate wider consideration "not only across Government but also among stakeholders such as employers".

Mr English referred to commitments in the Programme for Government - including to review whether the legal provisions surrounding collective redundancies and the liquidation of companies "effectively protect the rights of workers".

However, employer groups are likely to strongly resist any attempt to impose further levies on business.

The small and medium firms group ISME said they were "shocked" at the union proposal for an employer levy to fund enhanced redundancy terms where there was a collective agreement in place. 

Chief executive Neil McDonnell said it appeared that unions were unaware that employers had paid an extra 0.5% PRSI to capitalise the statutory redundancy fund since 1979. 

He noted that while the statutory redundancy rebate for employers had been abolished in 2013, that levy on employers was still in place. 

Prior to the Debenhams liquidation, staff had a 2016 collective agreement with their former employers entitling them to four weeks' pay per year of service, but the liquidators KPMG insist that agreement has no legal standing now that the company is in liquidation.

As a result, former employees are only set to receive the statutory minimum entitlement of two weeks per year of service capped at €600 per week. 

Since April, workers have maintained pickets on all 11 stores, preventing the liquidators Andrew O'Leary and Kieran Wallace from removing stock from the premises in order to progress the liquidation.

They also occupied stores in Cork's Patrick Street and Dublin's Henry Street earlier this week, though those occupations have ended.  

Gerry Light praised what he called the "bravery and steely determination"  shown by members over the past number of months.

However, the Mandate General Secretary cautioned that, following KPMG's withdrawal of settlement proposals, the workers had only one avenue to achieve their demands - which was to pursue the Government. 

Mr Light urged politicians to support the campaign, arguing that bailing out the banks had been managed overnight - and called for similar urgency in addressing the plight of workers "left high and dry by unscrupulous employers".