A carpenter who was branded “trouble” and sacked over his trade union membership has been awarded €8,000 for unfair dismissal.
The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) found it “incredible” that a worker with a clean disciplinary record was told to pack up his tools and go just one day after the Connect trade union wrote to his former employer in connection with a dispute over his rate of pay.
“What happened? I saw the emails from [his] trade union,” wrote one employee questioning the sacking in an internal email thread seen by the tribunal.
“Exactly. He’s trouble. Needs to be gone,” came the reply.
Contractor Cullenbridge Services Ltd, trading as Hollyfort Services, has been ordered to pay over €10,000 on foot of a series of employment rights complaints by the worker, Thomas Coffey.
Mr Coffey told the tribunal that he had agreed a €25.50-an-hour pay rate with both the company’s managing director and its HR manager in August 2022 – only to be approached later that year by the firm’s commercial manager who claimed he had been “overpaid” and should have been on €23 an hour.
He asked his trade union to intervene, with the union e-mailing the firm on 17th January this year.
Mr Coffey said he was approached the following day on site by the commercial manager and the company’s managing director, who told him he “wasn’t a good fit for the company”.
The worker said he was then told to “pack up [my] tools and leave the site, as [I] was being dismissed”.
The company’s former HR manager also gave evidence stating that the sum agreed with Mr Coffey when he joined the firm had been €25.50 an hour, and that she only discovered that a pay cut was made after the fact.
Connect trade union representative Thomas Faulkner told the tribunal he believed his client, a member of the union since 2017, was “dismissed due to him seeking his right to associate”.
The managing director of the company, who was not named in a WRC decision published on Thursday, said he was “annoyed with payroll” in connection with what he regarded as an “overpayment” to Mr Coffey and “planned to get the money back”.
He said he called Mr Coffey to a meeting and told him he could keep the difference of €2,600 if he signed an amended contract for €23 an hour, adding that they “shook hands” on the matter.
“If I didn’t get the paperwork back, that was it,” the managing director said.
The managing director said he lost confidence and trust in Mr Coffey because he had not brought the “error” to the company’s attention and “continued to take money he knew was not rightfully his”.
He also said the complainant had gone over his €50-a-month fuel card allowance in December and January, which he called “another flag”.
Questioned by Connect trade union official Thomas Faulkner on whether Mr Coffey should have been receiving the full rate of pay specified in the sectoral employment order for the construction sector, the managing director’s answer was “yes”.
He also said it was “an error on our part” that Mr Coffey had not been getting pension contributions, sick pay or death-in-service benefit.
Solicitor Neil Breheny, appearing for the firm, said that as Mr Coffey had less than a year’s service he had no right to refer a claim under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977.
Adjudicator Roger McGrath wrote that the email exchange opened in evidence to the WRC “indicates to me that in seeking his union’s help in the matter the complainant was deemed to be ‘trouble’ and needed to be dismissed”.
He found the sacking “was ‘wholly or mainly’ due to his union activities”, a provision made in the 1993 amendment to the Unfair Dismissals Act 1997 which meant the usual rule that a worker needs a year’s service to bring a complaint under the legislation could be set aside.
Upholding the complaint, Mr McGrath awarded the full two months’ lost earnings sought by Mr Coffey in his dismissal complaint, a sum of €8,000.
The adjudicator also found the €2.50-an-hour pay cut from 8th December, 2022 to 18th January, 2023, had been a “unilateral change” by the employer and ordered the firm to pay €585 for the difference under the Payment of Wages Act 1991.
Mr McGrath added that the firm was also in breach of the Industrial Relations Act 2015 in its failure to pay €1,101.16 worth of pension contributions. He made an order for the payment of that sum along with a compensation order of €500 for the “contravention”.
The total orders made against Cullenbridge Services Ltd were for the amount of €10,186.16.