TDs in Dáil call for minister to take decisive action to save Iceland jobs
The company entered examinership earlier this week.
THE FUTURE FOR Iceland’s stores in Ireland remains up in the air, the Dáil has heard.
Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise Neale Richmond said that workers at Iceland are “facing a serious period of instability” and he shared their concerns and fears over whether their jobs can be preserved.
The Dáil heard appeals by TDs for the future of the estimated 300 jobs remaining at the company’s stores, with claims made about the “opaque nature of the new ownership” overseeing the Ireland franchise of the UK chain since February.
Following months of concerns from staff since the new owner took over, an interim examiner was appointed to the grocery retailer on Tuesday.
The Journal has reported that staff had complained of erratic wage payments, which had seen some receiving a fraction of their ordinary pay packet, or not being paid at all.
A shock recall of the entirety of the grocery retailer’s frozen products of animal origin followed last week.
Yesterday, workers at its store in Coolock turned up to find the building shuttered – they staged a protest amid fears their jobs were gone. They paused the sit-in following an agreement with the interim examiner appointed by the High Court.
The Journal has heard from staff in other stores who say they have not had much clarity from management on whether their shop will remain open.
Distribution of appeal
In the Dáil today, TDs urged Minister Richmond to prevent the closure of the remaining 25 stores.
Richmond said that by entering examinership it would allow a protection period of up to 100 days, thereby providing “some breathing space” to rescue the company.
“The examiner’s primary duty is to rescue a company. Their role in the processes is to assess a company’s viability, attempt to secure investment and formulate proposals for restructuring while the company continues to trade during a protection period,” the Dublin Fine Gael TD said.
He added that as examinership is a court-supervised process, “it’s therefore important not to prejudge the outcome and it will be inappropriate for me to comment on this specific examinership case.”
Cian O’Callaghan, Social Democrats TD for Dublin Bay North, accused the company of “wild west practices” which the government needed to ensure did not continue and would not spread to other employers.
He added that air conditioning had been turned off in some stores, leading to “unbearable conditions” for people working there during the recent heatwave.
Richmond said he had been aware of reports that “employees of Iceland Ireland have experienced problems in getting their correct and full pay in recent weeks”, along with issues raised over the working conditions in certain stores.
“However, I want to emphasise that Ireland has a robust suite of employment rights legislation in place to protect and support workers, including in relation to payment of wages at minimum notice,” he said.
“I expect and the government expects all employers to comply with their obligations in this regard, where employees to either employment rights have been breached.”
He added that staff have the right to refer complaints the Workplace Relations Commission for new adjudication and possible redress.
Richmond also told TDs that he was not aware of any food safety issues when he met with Iceland’s representatives on Tuesday 13 June last. The major food recall of its frozen meat products followed two days later.
Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly said the minister needed to seek assurances from the company on the future for the workers and the stores. She and Right to Change TD Joan Collins outlined the network of companies also owned by the Irish franchise owner Naeem Maniar, an Irish-based Indian businessman.
Last February, Maniar’s Project Point Technologies was announced as the new owner of the franchise, taking over from the UK parent company. But since last week, statements have been issued by Metron Stores Limited when queries have been directed towards the company by The Journal.
The Dáil also heard that Maniar previously owned Iceland’s Ireland franchise until an examiner was appointed by the High Court in 2015. “Who was really behind some of these companies,” O’Reilly told the Dáil. She claimed there were “pseudonyms” being used in some circumstances and added that “it all comes back to the same company”.
The Dublin Fingal TD referenced media reports that the franchise’s UK parent company was “shocked that they’re now an examinership”, as this is “not where they thought that they would end up”.
O’Reilly urged Richmond to contact the Corporate Enforcement Authority, claiming there are “serious questions” arising as to what fitness and probity checks were carried out for the company.
“Given the current situation at the food retailer and the treatment of the workers and the opaque nature of the new ownership, minister, I would encourage you also to contact the corporate enforcement authority,” O’Reilly said.
When contacted last week, hours before the food recall, the company had maintained that “as part of best practice, operational matters at store level are subject to compliance checks under the franchise agreement” with the parent company.
Dublin South-Central TD Collins said she was concerned that the store shut down yesterday, in Coolock, was one where workers had previously downed tools and picketed after their wages went unpaid.
She outlined the serious issues around wages at the franchise and the many reports that many staff went without pay.
She said this stood in stark contrast to how food safety inspectors were “crawling the place” following the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s recall last week.
“We didn’t get inspectors from the Labour Court in those stores inspecting what’s going on,” Collins added.
Richmond supported the point, telling the chamber that the government needs to “fundamentally, greatly increase the resources available to allow for increased level of inspections” at retail premises.