Covid-19 pressures allegedly led workers at a plant belonging to Dawn Meats, one of Europe’s largest meat processors, to pick fallen burgers up off the floor and put them back on the line, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has heard.
The WRC told Dawn Meats Ltd on Wednesday at Waterford Courthouse that it had no power to order the press not to report on the claims after the company twice sought restrictions preventing the publication of the allegations, which they say are “false and defamatory”.
The tribunal was hearing a claim under the Employment Equality Act by Abdulah Aljaber, a former general operative at the firm’s plant in Co Waterford, who claims Dawn Meats discriminated against him on the grounds of disability by failing to provide him with reasonable accommodation and terminating his employment after he suffered a back injury. The company denies the claims.
“At that time there was the Corona; lots of pressure on the work. The work was so much pressure [that] if some procedure was neglected, covering the meat et cetera, you’d just leave it like that,” Mr Aljaber said in his evidence, speaking through an Arabic interpreter.
“Even the machines really weren’t being cleaned. That tells you there was so much pressure on some days machines were not washed or cleaned,” he added. “If the meat fell, even in front of the manager, you’d pick it up and put it back.”
Solicitor Gerard Cullen asked his client where the meat fell to. Mr Aljaber replied: “On the ground.”
When asked if this happened often, he replied “yes”.
Ibec employer relations executive Robin McKenna, who appeared for Dawn Meats, said the company’s position is that the complainant’s references to protected disclosures are false and defamatory. Mr McKenna requested that no allegations made at the hearing be published.
WRC adjudicating officer Gaye Cunningham retired to consider the matter and consult with colleagues. She returned after a short recess and said: “In this case we’ll be continuing on the basis that it’s an open hearing. I can see nowhere in the legislation where I am empowered to direct that there should be no publication of matters.”
A former health and safety officer for Dawn Meats, Richie Phelan, told the hearing that burgers were “absolutely not” put back on conveyors after falling to the floor.
“Everyone is aware that product we make is for human consumption,” he said.
Mr Phelan said the machines were cleaned after every production run every day. He added that the company had instituted a “contingency plan” during the pandemic to bring in contract cleaners if staff shortages impacted the cleaning schedule.
The complainant said his back started giving him pain as early as November 2020 as a result of lifting and carrying 25kg bags of meat in “subzero conditions” while there was “pressure” on the line. He said that he complained verbally to the floor manager in December about this.
“That’s factually incorrect,” Mr Phelan said when it was put to him by Mr McKenna.
He added that the company’s manual handling training instructed workers to do a “two-man lift” for a load of that size.
Mr Aljaber said that when he arrived late for work on January 5th, 2021, he was met by Mr Phelan and sent home.
An email written by Mr Phelan, opened to the tribunal by Mr Cullen, stated: “I met Abdulah – he informed me he hurt his back slipping at home.”
Mr Phelan stated in the email that Mr Aljaber “did not have a fit for work certificate” and that the complainant was not to be allowed back to work without management authorisation.
Mr Aljaber said he did not injure his back on that date and did not say he had “slipped down the stairs”. Mr Phelan said in his sworn evidence that the complainant had told him this.
The tribunal was told that Mr Aljaber had worked for the firm for 2½ months before going on long-term sick leave for more than six months before his employment was terminated.
Former Dawn Meats human resources officer Nicola O’Gorman said she held a series of meetings with the complainant up to July of last year, when he “disclosed to me that he would have to go for surgery, that he would have to wait a minimum of two to three years”.
“He couldn’t give me a return-to-work date because of Covid,” Ms O’Gorman said.
Mr Aljaber’s doctor had requested “light duties” for the complainant in a medical report to the company, but Ms O’Gorman gave evidence that no such duties were available for workers in Mr Aljaber’s role.
Before the close of the case, Dawn Meats renewed its application for reporting restrictions in the matter.
Mr McKenna said his side had not been put on notice that Mr Cullen would be raising the protected disclosure claims and that it had been “blindsided” by them. This was contested by Mr Cullen.
Ms Cunningham said she had made her position on the application for reporting restrictions clear and adjourned the matter to a date yet to be fixed by the WRC.