A sanction by the largest pork processor in Ireland to suspend a worker for 10 weeks without pay, for going on an unauthorised sun break to Tenerife during the Covid-19 pandemic, was disproportionate.
That is according to Labour Court deputy chairwoman, Katie Connolly which has found that Rosderra Irish Meat Group was justified in disciplining the un-named worker “for such a serious breach of procedures” in August 2020.
However, in the Labour Court recommendation, Connolly has recommended that the level of sanction be reduced from 10 weeks, to one week’s unpaid suspension.
Pork processor policy
The Labour Court deputy chair stated that, notwithstanding procedural flaws in the firm’s disciplinary process, the court found that the worker contributed significantly to the situation that arose.
Katie Connolly stated that the man was fully aware that his decision to take annual leave to Tenerife in August 2020 without approval was a breach of company’s revised annual leave procedures.
The case came before the Labour Court after the worker appealed a Workplace Relation Commission (WRC) adjudicator ruling which found that the 10-week unpaid suspension sanction imposed on the worker was not disproportionate.
In the case, the Labour Court deputy chair stated that in normal circumstances, the worker could have expected to take his annual leave that August in the normal way.
She stated: “However, the matter before the court must be viewed against the backdrop of a global pandemic which gave rise to exceptional and unprecedented challenges across all levels of society, including the meat industry.”
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Rosderra Irish Meat Group implemented revised annual leave procedures, following consultation with the union, as a health and safety measure to limit the risk of spread of infection in the workplace.
As a result, all annual leave arrangements where an employee had plans to leave the country by plane or ferry, were temporarily suspended and new approval procedures for anyone intending to travel outside Ireland for emergency or essential reasons were put in place.
Ms. Connolly remarked that the policy, although restrictive in nature, reflected public health advice at that time to avoid non-essential travel.
On behalf of the worker, SIPTU contended that on July 13, 2020, the worker tried to comply with the policy and requested a copy of the approval form from his supervisor.
SIPTU stated that the worker was not provided with a copy of the form and he approached the human resources manager on the day before his planned leave on August 22 and at that point was advised that he had not completed the approval process and his planned leave was not authorised.
SIPTU further argued that it is the worker’s prerogative to decide where he spends his holidays.
The union stated that the worker followed company guidelines and health and safety protocol of self-isolation for 14 days on his return from leave adding that the man did not place his colleagues at risk and did everything that was asked of him and yet was disciplined with a sanction just short of dismissal.
Labour Court determination
In its findings, Katie Connolly stated that it was the court’s view that the worker was fully aware of the revised annual leave policy and the requirement to secure approval before taking leave outside the country.
Ms. Connolly stated that the man was aware that the approval granted for his leave in August was no longer valid, yet he chose to travel to Tenerife in the knowledge that this leave was no longer authorised.
She stated that in these circumstances, the court found that the company’s decision to invoke the disciplinary process was justified and reasonable.
However, Ms. Connolly found that the duplication of roles undertaken by Rosderra’s HR manager calls into question the fairness of the disciplinary process.
The Labour Court deputy chair stated that having advised the worker that his leave was not authorised, the HR manager went on to conduct the disciplinary process and decide on a sanction of 13 weeks unpaid suspension, which was reduced to 10 weeks unpaid suspension on appeal.
Ms. Connolly stated that in such circumstances, “the HR manager cannot be considered to be an impartial decision maker. There was no clear separation of investigation and disciplinary processes”.
“This could have been addressed in an organisation the size of the employer by allowing another member of management to conduct the disciplinary hearing,” she added.
Pork processor Rosderra Meats
Rosderra Meats told the court that the meat industry was faced with significant and unprecedented challenges as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The firm stated that the company had a duty of care to the business and the livelihood of over 1,000 employees.
Rosderra rejected the SIPTU assertion that the revised policy diluted the worker’s rights, as the measure was aimed at protecting the health and safety of workers.
Rosderra stated that the company had a multinational workforce and many employees had leave arrangements curtailed.
The processor stated that the sanction was both fair and proportionate in circumstances where the worker, in breach of company policy, took unauthorised leave in a ‘non-green’ listed country during the height of a global pandemic.