The shuttering of Clerys landmark shop in Dublin city centre has cast a light on new Irish company law which allowed the troubled business to be stripped of valuable assets before its workers were suddenly left jobless.
The famous O’Connell Street store, which originally opened in 1853, survived two world wars, the Easter Rising and the war of independence, as well as many recessions and natural disasters. But last week, it succumbed to the ‘cowboy capitalism’ for which the 26 County state has become renowned.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said there had been “serious conflicts of interest” surrounding the sale and closure of the store, which shut with only 30 minutes warning on Friday, leaving 400 staff out of a job.
On Saturday, hundreds attended a protest in support of the workers. The lunchtime rally, organised by trade union SIPTU, was held under the department store’s iconic clock.
In a speech to the protest, Mayor of Dublin Christy Burke said that Clerys’ owners “should be hauled before the courts” for their “bully boy tactics”. Unions are now calling on the public to support further demonstrations outside the O’Connell Street store in the days and weeks ahead.
‘IT’S JUST GREED’
John Crowe, who worked in the store for 43 years, said that staff had not even been allowed to collect their belongings from lockers in the store on the day it closed.
“We were treated disgracefully. They wouldn’t treat dogs that badly… I don’t see myself employed again. I’m 62 and I went into Clerys at 16,” he said.
Maureen Deane said the long time staff at Clerys were devastated. She said: “Both myself and my son worked in Clerys - I was there 15 years and he was there 10. He was on the way home on Friday when I phoned him to tell him he had no job. Then we were called to a meeting and we were told that was the end of the business. So it’s a real case of profit before people.”
Margaret O’Dea, who started working in Clerys when she was 17 said things at the store had deteriorated only in the past few years.
“I was working in the children’s section yesterday and at about 5.15pm they told us to close our tills and come to a meeting.
“I thought we were going to be told about the new owners, but they just said Clerys was closing and our jobs were gone. I started to cry. I was shocked. All my years there and, just gone, and ‘You’re getting nothing’. It’s just greed. There is money there.”
Liquidators at Clerys told the laid-off workers there are no funds to pay redundancies, and that the full cost of the layoffs would have to be paid by the State. Customers of Clerys were being warned that any money they put down in cash deposits or spent on vouchers has likely been lost.
Speaking in the Dublin parliament, Gerry Adams highlighted what he called “sharp practice” in the run up to the sale and the involvement of individuals and companies in various aspects of the deal, which reaped huge profits for a Boston-based firm.
Mr Adams noted that vulture capitalists Gordon Brothers bought Clerys in 2012 for a knockdown price of around 2 million euro, after 10 million euro of Clerys debts and lending were written off by Bank of Ireland. It then separated the firm into “operations” and “properties” divisions. After the “operations” were placed into liquidation, the property was sold for 29 million euro last month.
Some of the new owners of the property are senior figures in the scandal-plagued Irish ‘bad bank’, IBRC, formerly Anglo-Irish bank. Anglo’s special liquidators KPMG are also the special liquidators of Clerys.
Adams warned of the “serious conflicts of interests” involved, but said that the practice appeared to be “entirely legal” under company law introduced by Fine Gael and Labour.
He urged that company law be changed to protect workers from “rogue employers”.
“There is no provision for redundancy, holiday pay or other staff-related costs or pensions,” he said, and “no fairness” for employees or concession holders who operated units within the store.
In response, the Taoiseach said: “Company law in its entirety is quite a complex document” and that it would be looked at “in due course”.
But he noted that employees, some of whom had given four decades of “loyal service”, had been subjected to “insensitive treatment”.
Adams went on to say Clerys “is the latest example of a culture of golden circles, insiders and inequality which has so angered Irish citizens in recent years”.
Be pointed to other questionable aspects of the transactions involved, and accused Gordon Brothers of having “left Dublin after pocketing an extraordinary profit of €19 million after destroying so many jobs in this city”.
“Insiders, golden circles, sharp practice. All legal under Company Law introduced by Fine Gael and Labour. The law allows workers to be shafted while the protected elites make massive profits,” Mr Adams said.
There has been speculation the building will be developed into a combined retail and hotel complex, with the possibility of offices being opened on the higher floors.