The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has heard a test case in connection with complaints taken by around 750 former Debenhams workers over the way they were made redundant in 2020.
Debenhams Retail (Ireland) is accused of failing to comply with its responsibilities in a collective redundancy scenario by not consulting with or providing information to the workers' trade union Mandate.
A group of former Debenhams workers staged a protest outside the WRC today ahead of the opening of the hearing.
The test case involves Debenhams Henry Street shop steward Jane Crowe.
In opening statements, Mandate said it was its strong contention that the decision to make Debenhams staff redundant was made prior to 9 April 2020 and was copper-fastened on 16 April 2020, but the first consultation with the union only took place on 17 April.
Mandate General Secretary Gerry Light told the hearing that a first letter from company director John Bebbington to the workers on 9 April 2020 made it "really evident that we’ve gone beyond the point of no return".
He said the union had expressed "displeasure and disquiet" at the development but that it had taken eight days for the liquidators and management to meet with staff representatives after that.
Mandate argued that under employment law, there must be meaningful consultation with unions while proposals for redundancies are still at a formative stage but in this case, the company had decided there would be a collective redundancy prior to any consultation with unions.
Mandate claimed that communications from KPMG, the liquidator appointed to Debenhams Ireland, amounted to a cursory box-ticking exercise and that repeated requests for information fell on deaf ears.
The union argued that the information it received fell far short of the minimum required.
Counsel for the liquidators KPMG, Kelley Smith SC, told the hearing that her clients believe they did comply with requirements when it came to providing information and consultation.
She said that liquidator Andrew O'Leary had four meetings with the union and provided written responses.
Ms Smith also said it was important to remember the context and constraints that existed at the time in April 2020, which included the fact that the Debenhams stores were closed due to Covid restrictions.
In his evidence, Mr O'Leary outlined the engagement that had taken place with the parties involved and said they were happy they had provided full information.
The Mandate Trade Union is seeking the maximum compensation allowed in a case like this which is four weeks' pay per claim and it has submitted four claims.
The adjudicator in the case will deliver his ruling at a future date.
After they were made redundant, pickets were mounted by workers on the closed Debenhams stores which delayed efforts to remove stock from the premises for over a year.
An overnight garda operation in April 2021 broke up the blockade at Debenhams' flagship store on Henry Street in Dublin.
The workers had been demanding an enhanced redundancy package of four weeks' pay per year of service rather than the legal minimum of two weeks.