'No talks': Margaret Heffernan

DUNNES Stores has slashed the weekly hours worked by staff at some of its stores amid the ongoing retail slowdown, which has also seen it cease Sunday trading at its flagship store on Dublin's Grafton Street.

Some employees have seen their hours cut by over half, resulting in earnings of under €150 a week, which is less than they would receive from the state, if unemployed, say unions.

The move, which has provoked an angry response from the worker's union Mandate, is the latest in a series of cutbacks at Dunnes, which last month shelved plans to open three new stores.

The company is said to have taken advantage of the flexible nature of contracts in the retail sector to push through the latest cuts.

According to Mandate, many of Dunnes Stores' contracts only entitle staff to a minimum of 15 hours of work a week with extra hours being at the company's discretion. These extra hours have now been cut back.

Mandate's assistant general secretary Gerry Light said that the chain, which is headed by Margaret Heffernan, has refused his requests for a meeting on the issue.

"They can't continue to treat their staff in the manner in which they have been doing. This issue is becoming one of national importance given the size of their business," he said.

"There are certain signs that everyone in the industry is struggling, not just Dunnes, but they shouldn't be taking it out on their lowest paid workers." The company declined to comment.

One of the issues raised by the affected workers is that Dunnes is refusing to accommodate staff by allocating their reduced hours into three days or less, meaning they are unable to claim unemployment benefit.

Light said, however, that Mandate would not be taking this up with the company.

"That just leads you into an argument about whether the state should subsidise Dunnes Stores by supplementing its workers' incomes. If we sort out the first problem, that second issue will vanish."