Staff pay slips at mushroom farm were doctored, ex-employee claims

Allegations staff were working more than legally permitted hours denied by farmer

 

Staff at an Irish mushroom farm were working up to 80 hours a week in breach of employment law and their pay slips were doctored to make it seem that working hour regulations were adhered to, a former employee of the firm has claimed

Ana Lacramiora Manciu (30) alleged staff at Stablefield Mushrooms of Clogheen, Co Tipperary worked on average over 75 hours during their six-day week but pay records were doctored to show they worked just 40 hours.

“We would work from 6.30am and the pickers would finish at 9pm at night - we were not allowed to leave the tunnels (where the mushrooms were grown) until everything was finished,” she said.

Ms Manciu said staff would clock in via a computer system at 6.30am and clock out when they finished at night, over 13 hours later but these times were falsified on the pay slips given to workers.

Ms Manciu made her allegations during an appeal brought on her behalf by Migrants Rights Centre Ireland to the Labour Court against a decision of Adjudication Officer of the Workplace Relations Commission.

The Adjudication Officer of the WRC had found against Ms Manciu on three specific grounds in relation to working hours, annual leave and public holiday pay as provided for by the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997.

Ms Manciu said she and her husband began working for Stablefield, which is owned by Tom Sweeney, in December 2012 but there was no contract provided and they were simply told were told their hours would be variable, depending on production.

Promoted

Over the next three years at Stablefield, Ms Mancius was promoted from picker to picker/trainer and then to supervisor before being promoted to the most senior management role of harvest manager in June 2015.

She told how as harvest manager she had responsibility for the daily running of the mushroom farm including recruitment, training and managing picking rates for which she was paid a fixed gross salary of €2,000 every four weeks.

As harvest manager she had to be in work before the pickers began at 6.30am so she generally came in around 6.15am or 6.20am and did not leave until between 9pm and 10pm after the pickers had finished.

She would text Mr Sweeney between 8pm and 9pm and they would examine the tunnels after the pickers left.

“I worked over 80 hours every week - it varied by two or three hours each week - I never worked less than 80 hours.”

Each month, Mr Sweeney would ask all staff to sign two documents - one page showing their pay and a second page of pay analysis showing their working hours which she later discovered recorded her as working only 40 hours.

“My pay slip was two pages - I was told to ‘Sign here’ and ‘Sign here’ - and I was given the first page - it contained my gross pay and my net pay but I was never given the second page - I did not have sight of the pay analysis page.”

She said when she first saw her pay analysis page in February 2015, after Mr Sweeney left it in the office, it did not show the full hours she worked but less than half the hours and she confronted him about it.

Confronted

“I confronted Mr Tom about this and he said it was only for his records - I was told these records were just to make things look legal,” said Ms Manciu, adding she did not have access to the computer which generated the pay analysis.

Ms Manciu said Mr Sweeney’s sister, Kate Breedy was present when she confronted Mr Sweeney and she alleged Ms Breedy told her: “Here in Ireland, it doesn’t matter how many hours you work, you just need to get the job done.”

She also alleged Mr Sweeney told staff if they were ever inspected by the WRC they were to say they worked six to seven hours a day and not the true figure or else the farm would be closed down and they would lose their jobs.

Ms Manciu alleged pickers complained about having to work such long hours as they were exhausted and wanted to finish at 8pm and this led to a high turnover of staff with often as many as ten pickers leaving every month.

Mr Sweeney told the hearing how he had been in business for around 20 years, employing people initially on a part-time basis before hiring people full time after four to five years and he now employed 40 to 45 people at the farm.

He said Ms Manciu began working for him as a picker in December 2012 but she was “a smart girl - you only had to show her something once and she picked it up” so he promoted her to picker-trainer.

He subsequently promoted her to supervisor and ultimately to harvest manager where she was responsible for the day to day running of the farm. “She was a good organizer and she kept people on their toes,” he said.

Mr Sweeney denied Ms Manciu ever complained to him in February 2015 that he was doctoring her pay slips to show she was working lesser hours. “At no stage did that happen,” he said.

Denied

He denied ever having a conversation with Ms Manciu where he said they had to doctor documents so the working hours complied with labour laws and an inspection by the Labour Inspectorate in 2015 found no issues with his firm.

He said every four weeks, his sister Kate Breedy would run the payroll and Ms Manciu would help her distribute the pay slips to the workers and he never heard any allegation that there was a dispute over hours worked.

He rejected Ms Manciu’s allegation that she worked an average of 81 hours a week, saying it wasn’t possible as the harvesting of mushrooms would be completed by early afternoon and pickers would go home at 1-1.30pm.

He said Ms Manciu’s duties were complete once the harvesting was done and he was there most days when she left at 1-1.30pm and he denied she was ever there at 9pm when he inspected the tunnels to see everything was in order.

The pay slips which showed Ms Manciu worked around 40 hours a week were a correct record, said Mr Sweeney, adding Ms Manciu never told him the pickers had complaints about working excessive hours.

Mr Sweeney told the hearing the clock-in/clock-out computer was linked to the payroll via a computer programme which generated the pay slips and the pay slips could not be inputted manually.

Labour Court Chair, Tom Geraghty said there was a complete contradiction in the evidence tendered by both Ms Manciu and Mr Sweeney and he asked him why he believed she had “turned on him” after three and a half years.

Mr Sweeney said he believed Ms Manciu had brought the complaints simply to get money and said he believed the reason she “turned” on him was due to a work issue relating to her husband when he was working at the farm.

Mr Sweeney said Ms Manciu never once brought him a complaint in the three and a half years she worked for him and he never received any complaint from any employees over the same time period.

“I believe I pay my employees a good income,” said Mr Sweeney, adding he tries to help his employees, many of whom come from Eastern Europe, as much as possible including by helping them out with opening bank accounts.

He agreed some people would leave if they were working long hours but that was not the case and some of those who left after a month or two simply didn’t like the work but others, such as Ms Manciu, stayed for several years.