Two low-paid Traveller workers have been awarded nearly €11,000 each for whistleblower penalisation and discrimination after they wrote a series of letters complaining about the running of the State-funded community support organisation which employed them.
The sums awarded by the Workplace Relations Commission amount to two and a half years’ pay for each of the women, who earned just €84 a week as part-time minimum-wage community welfare officers with over a decade’s service with the unidentified community support organisation.
It upheld complaints made by the workers under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 and the Employment Equality Act 1998 in an anonymised decision published on Thursday morning.
The workers had both made formal complaints about their former line manager in the spring and early summer of 2021 and had written to the organisation’s board and its State patron with concerns about the safety protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic, among other matters.
Their trade union representative Michael Kerrigan of Fórsa, said the workers had been “effectively removed” from their jobs and put on “an unauthorised and illegal suspension”.
Both workers said in evidence that they had been removed “without cause” from a conference call on September 28th, 2021 and denied access to later remote meetings.
Other employees, who were “not members of the Travelling community” had been “raising similar points” on that call, but were not removed, they said.
The two complainants also told the tribunal they didn’t have a work phone or any allowance for phone credit to perform their duties, even though other staff at the organisation who were not Travellers had been provided with phone and broadband access.
At one point they complained that the cost of using their phones for work duties brought their pay below the level of the national minimum wage.
Then, in January 2022, the tribunal heard both workers were put on notices of complaints of alleged misconduct, which they both “strenuously denied” and were told they could not go back to work until it was resolved.
Mr Kerrigan said this “simply represented the latest form of penalisation” over the protected disclosures.
He said the organisation was subject to an external investigation by an outside body in April 2022, which issued a report that “echoed many of the issues raised by the complainant[s]” and showed a “deeply dysfunctional organisation”.
The findings included a failure to adhere to internal employment policies, the failure to provide a written protected disclosures policy and the inappropriate use of disciplinary procedures, Mr Kerrigan said – findings that Mr Kerrigan said “corroborated” his clients’ testimony.
The management of the organisation made no appearance at hearing – with Mr Kerrigan telling the tribunal it had “ceased trading and no longer maintained a managerial structure”. However, adjudicator Brian Dalton noted that their former employer was still listed as “normal” by the Companies Registration Office and that no liquidator had been appointed.
He heard the claims in the absence of the respondent and directed that the matter be heard in private to preserve the complainants’ anonymity as whistleblowers.
Mr Dalton found it was “clear” that many of the complaints raised by the workers during their employment “may be categorised as protected disclosures”.
These included the references to health and wellbeing because of the alleged actions of the line manager; the alleged failure to “properly safeguard” personal data in the organisation; the allegation that an offence was being committed under the National Minimum Wage Act, and the complaint to the State patron body in connection with Covid-19 measures, he wrote.
Mr Dalton said it was apparent that both complainants had suffered a detriment linked to their disclosures and ruled their complaint under the Protected Disclosures legislation to be well founded.
He also said the workers had established the primary facts supporting a claim of discrimination to which the organisation had made no rebuttal – and upheld their equality claims too.
The adjudicator awarded each of the women 18 months’ salary, €6,552, for whistleblower penalisation, and a further €4,368 for discrimination on the grounds of membership of the Travelling Community – €10,920 each.
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