Dunnes Stores: Where were we when our rights were being stolen?

Over the past year, barely a week goes by without Dunnes Stores appearing in the news. The retail shop made headlines again this week due to the continuing conflict between its employees and management.

On April 2nd, around half of Dunnes Stores’ staff were involved in an organised strike. But after a few days the Mandate trade union reported the alleged targeting and intimidation of some employees who took part in the one-day strike. This is confirmation of a veiled threat written by Dunnes’ management in a letter to staff on February 4th stating: “Harm to the company can only but harm its employees resulting in redundancies and layoffs”.

Mandate, on behalf of Dunnes Stores workers, started the campaign in spring 2014, formulating four clear requests: secure hours and earnings; job security; fair pay for all Dunnes workers and the right to trade union representation. Before resorting to going on strike, the trade union conducted a survey of more than 1,200 Dunnes workers and found that 76% of the stores’ employees are on part-time, flexible contracts. According to Mandate, 98% of those surveyed said they want more stable hours.

98% of those surveyed also said they wanted Dunnes Stores to respect their right to trade union representation. The Labour Court also recommended that the company should engage with their workers’ representatives. However, the company refused to sit at the negotiating table, claiming the right of “dissociation, namely that an employer is not obliged to nor must it talk or engage directly with Trade Unions”. In reply, Mandate Assistant General Secretary Gerry Light said: “Sadly they’ve chosen the route of conflict rather than behaving in a responsible manner. This is not how any employer should behave in 21st century Ireland.”

[pullquote] “It is like being back in Dickens’ Hard Times during the 19th century’s conflicts between the working class and business owners… [/pullquote]

Actually, it is like being back in Dickens’ Hard Times during the 19th century’s conflicts between the working class and business owners. In a certain way the situation could be considered darker today than in the past. In fact, we are losing granted rights, achieved by people who fought for them. We are wasting a heritage and walking some steps behind the last generation. Where were we when our rights were being stolen? We were probably busy searching for a job and, when finally we found one, its terms had almost no significance.

In fact, the central issue concerns the abuse by Dunnes of flexi-hours contracts, which recognise a variable number of hours per week, between 15-35. This is a soft version of the UK’s ‘zero hours contract’, which doesn’t permit any prediction of a stable income. This kind of agreement was born during the economic crisis and it’s considered a tool to increase efficiency and productivity for businesses. On the other hand, it’s a strong arm for managers who want to keep employees under control. Furthermore, workers can’t organise their life neither in the short-medium nor in the long term, without any guarantee of time or money. According to the survey of Dunnes staff conducted by Mandate 85% felt that insecurity around hours and rostering is used as a method of control over workers. Here is the laconic reply of management: “When each of you joined Dunnes Stores, you did so upon the terms of the contract of employment that was offered”.

A European Union Directive was signed in 1997 as protection for part-time workers, but it’s ineffective if not absorbed by each country’s law. This is evidence of the EU’s weakness in social issues. It can only finance projects in aid of discriminated workers such as women or ethnic groups, but it is necessary to go back with a focus on the rights of human beings; the right of work.

[pullquote] “Dunnes Stores is just damaging its own reputation. [/pullquote]

That said, the most important question remains: Why? What is the interest of the employer? Does it really earn more by using these strategies than dealing with workers in a fair way? Dunnes Stores is just damaging its own reputation, which is essential for its business. You will search in vain for an answer given by the owners because they have refused to comment since the issue began. Do they plan to offer sales forever, as done on April 2nd? Yes, since the workers’ strike, the store’s website launched a 20% discount on all products!

In this case, Dickens would say: “The strong hand will never do’t… Let thousands upon thousands alone, aw leading the like lives and aw faw’en into the like muddle, and they will be as one, and yo will be as anoother, wi’ a black unpassable world betwixt yo… Most o’ aw will never do ‘t rating ’em as so much Power, and reg’latin ’em as if they was figures in a soom, or machines: wi’out souls to weary and souls to hope.”



Photo: Louisa McGrath