A Co Cavan farmer who was sacked by Pat the Baker after he was accused of stealing waste flour has been fined €13,400 for unfair dismissal.
Adraig Cunningham has always denied theft, claiming he was doing his employer, Pat the Baker Unlimited, a “favour” by taking material from his location in Granard, Co. Longford.
He told the Workplace Relations Commission that ending up in animal feed would be dangerous for the livestock, so he composted it on his own land instead.
Pat the Baker’s position was that the waste material, which consisted of flour caught in the sifting, waste dough, unsaleable bread and unusable ingredients, could be sold at €68 a tonne to a food disposal company to make animal feed – and that Mr Cunningham knew this shouldn’t take it.
“We have a very clear policy that theft will not be tolerated, whether it’s 20 cents or $2,000,” the company’s human resources director, Frank Burton, said at a Workplace Relations Commission hearing in March.
But Mr Cunningham’s wrongful dismissal complaint was upheld in a decision released today – in which the sentencing officer found that the removal of waste flour was “known within the organization” and that the bakery had acted improperly when it hired a staff member aged 24 had released years of service.
Bakery general manager Anthony Maguire said he started looking at CCTV tapes after bottles of hand sanitiser went missing in April 2020 – noting footage of Mr Cunningham taking away a full bin on a tractor’s front loader.
Mr Maguire said the footage showed the complainant coming in late at night or early in the morning – and that he did not give permission for the practice nor did anyone else in the company have authority.
The bakery’s HR director, Frank Burton, said he had investigated the matter and Mr Cunningham admitted taking the footage but insisted he had permission.
The investigation found “factual inconsistencies” in his statements and the complainant “could not prove that he had a permit”.
Mr Cunningham was sacked on 17 May 2020 for gross misconduct, the WRC has been told.
Declan Fitzgerald, the company’s chief executive, heard an appeal in July 2020 and confirmed the termination.
He said there would be “huge repercussions” if the material allegedly stolen by Mr Cunningham had ended up in the human food chain without having been processed by a registered food waste recipient.
“It could go as far as closure, contaminate the grocery chain, mean a hefty fine, a percentage of sales,” he added.
He said that Mr Cunningham, as secretary of the Cavan Beef Plan group, should be particularly aware of the risks involved when the material is given to animals.
“That’s stealing,” said Mr. Fitzgerald.
Mr Cunningham said he took material on orders from his superiors.
“It’s not to be used as animal feed — it’s flour that ends up in landfills,” he said. “It could contain broken glass, heavy metals, wood – we’ve always been told it needs to be landfilled.”
Mr Cunningham’s lawyer, Conor Quinn BL, asked him to comment on stills from the CCTV footage, including one where he could be seen moving pallets of expired soda bread mix.
“He [a manager] brought it out to me and said let it go,” Mr Cunningham said. “This is for you, let that go.”
“If it becomes moldy, the breeding cattle will be abandoned, they cannot be fed with it,” he said.
He also said the flour improver he was accused of ingesting consisted mostly of ascorbic acid, which would “poison” the rumen of cattle and also couldn’t go into animal feed.
“The best thing would be to compost it,” he said.
He said he got no benefit from removing the material from the yard and considered himself “doing a favor to move it, get rid of it”.
“It wasn’t me who put the company in jeopardy. The company was only at risk by putting this stuff in the US [feed contractor’s] am,” he said.
In her decision, sentencing officer Marguerite Buckley wrote that the disciplinary proceedings against Mr Cunningham “were not consistent with the general principle of natural justice and fair trial”.
“Alternatives to dismissal were not considered and several of the complainant’s employees had expressed this [he] had been taking waste flour for some time, his explanation was disregarded in its historical context,” she wrote.
There is no written record of Mr Cunningham being told not to take the flour, nor any record of him receiving or being trained on the company’s new waste policy, she noted.
The removal of the waste meal was “known within the organization” and Mr Cunningham – a longtime employee who had worked at the company for 24 years – had made an “immediate admission and explanation” for his actions, she wrote.
“I do not think that the defendants’ dismissal finding lay in a set of answers that a reasonable employer could give,” she concluded.
Ms Buckley asked Pat the Baker to pay Mr Cunningham €13,400 for the financial loss of 21 weeks he suffered before finding work again.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/news/farming-news/farmer-accused-of-stealing-waste-flour-theft-wins-13400-in-compensation-for-unfair-dismissal-41779367.html Bauer, who is accused of flour theft, receives 13,400 euros in compensation for unfair dismissal