Covid-19 pressures led workers at a site belonging to one of Europe's largest meat processors to pick fallen burgers off the floor and put them back on the line, while machines were left uncleaned on certain days, it has been alleged at the Workplace Relations Commission.
The WRC told Dawn Meats Ltd on Wednesday that it has 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”.
At Waterford Courthouse yesterday, a former health and safety officer for Dawn in his evidence said that burgers were “absolutely not” put back on conveyors after falling to the floor.
The tribunal was hearing a claim under the Employment Equality Act by Abdulah Aljaber, a former general operative at Dawn Meats’ plant in Co Waterford, who says the firm 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 etc, 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 [that] 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,” he said.
Solicitor Gerard Cullen asked his client where the meat fell to and Mr Aljaber replied: “On the ground.”
“Often?” counsel asked.
“Yes,” the complainant said.
He said one location on the factory’s burger line was supposed to be staffed by four workers but near Christmas 2020, with absences due to illness or Covid-19, they were down to two.
“Sometimes when the line was busy the burgers go down on the floor,” he said.
“How often,” Mr Cullen said.
“Too often,” Mr Aljaber said.
Mr Cullen then put it to his client that Dawn Meats “did try to get you to accept a payment in respect of your personal injury”.
Ibec employer relations executive Robin McKenna, who appeared for the company, objected to this line of questioning.
“It was without prejudice,” he said.
“It is not without prejudice. Your client broke the without prejudice rule,” Mr Cullen said.
Mr Cullen said these discussions had extended to the question of Mr Aljaber “not to report overwork practices, burgers falling on the floor”.
“[I] accept that’s all in the documentation,” Ms Cunningham said.
Mr McKenna said Mr Cullen was “clearly grandstanding”, adding: “there’s a reporter here”.
“Dawn Meats’ position is that the complainant’s references to protected disclosures earlier on are false and defamatory and we have already brought this to his solicitor’s attention,” said Mr McKenna.
“We request that no allegations that are made today are published,” he said.
After a short recess the adjudicating officer, Gaye Cunningham, 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.”
Former health and safety officer Richie Phelan said in his evidence that burgers were “absolutely not” put back on conveyors after falling to the floor.
“Everyone is aware that the product we make is for human consumption,” he said, adding that there were designated red trays in the area Mr Aljaber was working which were shipped offsite for disposal.
“Is there any consequence to an employee if they do drop burgers?” Mr McKenna asked him.
“No, absolutely not – human error is human error. There’s a lot of burgers coming down the line, it may have fallen off the conveyor. The correct decision is to put it in the red tray,” he said.
Mr Phelan said the company’s policy was that a worker found to have put a burger from the floor back on the conveyor belt would be disciplined.
Cross-examining the company witness, Mr Cullen asked him how many workers had been disciplined for doing so.
“None,” the witness said, adding: “If they did, they weren’t seen.”
“If there was never any process, how did you know?” counsel asked.
“It’s the hygiene requirements,” the witness said.
“Where’s it written down?” Mr Cullen asked.
“It’s not in writing,” Mr Phelan replied.
“You’re also quite confident it’s never happened,” the solicitor said.
“Not that I’m aware of,” the witness said.
“What happens with the cleaning? My client has said machines are regularly left uncleaned at weekends,” Mr Cullen said.
“That’s untrue. They’re cleaned after every production run every day,” Mr Phelan replied, adding that 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 had begun to give him pain as early as November 2020 as a result of lifting and carrying 25kg bags of meat in “sub-zero conditions” while there was “pressure” on the line. He said he complained verbally to the floor manager in December about this.
“That’s factually incorrect,” Mr Phelan said of the complainant’s claims when 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.
“If there’s a hold-up there’s no requirement to hold up weights,” he said.
He added there were no weights greater than 25kg in the area of the plant where the complainant worked.
Mr Aljaber said that when he arrived late for work on January 5, 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 didn’t 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.
He said it was the “perfect opportunity” for the complainant to raise any previous work-related injury but that he did not do so.
The tribunal was told that Mr Aljaber had worked for the firm for two and a half months before going on long-term sick leave for over six months before his employment was terminated.
Former Dawn Meats HR officer Nicola O’Gorman said she held a series of meetings with the complainant up to July 2021, 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.
She gave details of the process followed by the firm after Mr Aljaber went on sick leave in January 2021.
“In all my meetings he never once mentioned being injured in a work-related incident,” she said.
Mr McKenna put it to the witness that at the time of a meeting in July 2021 to address Mr Aljaber’s “long-term absence”, the employee had been absent over six months, having worked for the firm for two and a half months.
“Why was Mr Aljaber’s position terminated?” Mr McKenna asked the witness.
“Mr Aljaber disclosed to me that he would have to go for surgery, that he would have to wait a minimum of 2-3 years… he couldn’t give me a return-to-work date because of Covid,” Ms O’Gorman said.
“I put it to you [that] you just wanted to get rid of him,” said Mr Cullen, cross-examining Ms O’Gorman.
“We could not afford Mr Aljaber on light duties so he had to go out sick. There’s no role there in his position for light duties,” the witness said.
The company’s policy for general operatives was “either you’re fit or you’re not”.
She added that Mr Aljaber had “failed his probation on time and attendance”.
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.
The adjudicating officer 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.