Ms McDonnell said when she asked the assistant manager for an explanation, he told her: “I don’t have to give you a reason. You must leave the shop”
The women and girls, who are aged between three and 21, have all lodged complaints against Iceland Foods (Ireland) Ltd under the Equal Status Act over an incident at the store on 27 November 2020.
They cite race and membership of the Travelling Community as the alleged grounds of discrimination, which Iceland denies.
Their solicitor, Christopher McCann of the Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC), told the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in Tuesday that it would hear evidence that the security guard went off to find the assistant manager “within seconds” of his clients walking through the door.
“The assistant manager and security guard then required them, in full view of other customers, to leave the shop. Despite [being asked] for a reason neither provided any reason,” he said – adding his clients had done nothing which could “objectively justify” being told to leave.
His clients were left “confused and embarrassed” by being put out of the shop and felt there was a “clear implication they had been involved in some kind of wrongdoing” – but complied with the direction of the workers and left the premises.
Megan McDonnell, the eldest of the group, told the tribunal that young Traveller girls tended to have a “similar look”, including long hair, clothes and jewellery, and added that their accents tended to identify them as members of the community too.
“We were all speaking [approaching the door] and I believe the security guard heard our accents as well,” she said.
Ms McDonnell said when she asked the assistant manager for an explanation for telling them to leave, he told her: “I don’t have to give you a reason. You must leave the shop.”
She said no other customers were asked to leave the shop at the same time.
“I felt myself I’d done something wrong. I felt I’d done something I didn’t do,” she said.
Ms McDonnell was cross-examined by Elizabeth-Jane Walsh BL, who appeared for the supermarket chain on the instructions of Michael Heslin of Miley & Miley LLP.
She put it to the complainant that although she had identified long hair and jewellery as markers identifying her and her companions as members of the Travelling Community, a group of three women who left the shop just before them had not been prevented from shopping.
“I believe our strong accents identified us as well,” Ms McDonnell said.
“We’re from Dublin all our lives and we haven’t got one hint of a Dublin accent,” she said.
“You didn’t have any verbal interaction with the security guard so the way you talked really has no relevance,” counsel said.
“I believe that he heard us when we were walking towards the shop and us talking and laughing,” Ms McDonnell replied.
The complainant accepted that she had shopped in Iceland before and since the incident with her mother without difficulty.
“And you’re sure you don’t know why? Had there been anything that happened before?” counsel asked.
“Not in that shop,” said Ms McDonnell, adding that she had been “followed around” in other stores in the past because she was “readily identifiable” as a Traveller.
“There’s no other reason that you were followed around?” Ms Walsh asked. “No,” Ms McDonnell replied.
Ms Walsh said her side was faced with an “evidential deficit” in defending the case.
She told the tribunal that the assistant manager who spoke with the girls had been dismissed by the supermarket over a year and a half ago for reasons unrelated to the complaints at hand.
Ms Walsh added that the security guard, an employee of a contractor which was not party to the complaints, was not available either, having been “involved in a road traffic accident with a bus last week”.
The adjudicating officer, Brian Dalton, said it was within his power to summon the assistant manager to give evidence, but Ms Walsh said her client would “prefer closure in this matter” and would not be seeking an adjournment.
John Moran, the supermarket chain’s area manager for Dublin, gave evidence that all its employees received a staff handbook setting out the business’s policy on discrimination, which he said specifically identifies discrimination against members of the Travelling Community.
He said managers were “100pc familiar” with it and that members of the Travelling Community were welcome to shop in any of its stores throughout their trading hours.
“Are members of the Travelling Community frequent customers?” Ms Walsh asked him.
“Yes, absolutely,” Mr Moran said.
Mr McCann, for the complainant, asked Mr Moran how he knew members of the community shopped in his stores.
“I can only assume they do – it’s open to the public,” the area manager replied, going on to add: “Some people do tell us: ‘I’m a Traveller.’”
Mr McCann put it to Mr Moran that an effective policy ought to inform a shop manager “how to identify a Traveller” for the purposes of avoiding discriminatory treatment. “Not necessarily,” Mr Moran said.
He said a member of the Travelling Community could “possibly” be identified by their voice or accent but not by visual characteristics.
“In circumstances where no evidence of a reason for ejecting my client from the supermarket has been given and where there’s clear evidence of easy identification [as a member of the Travelling Community] … I say the burden has shifted to the respondent,” Mr McCann said in his closing argument.
“In the absence of any objective reason I would say that the respondent has failed to discharge the burden of proof,” he added.
He said the question of who employed the security guard was moot as he “clearly was under the control of the assistant manager and doing Iceland’s bidding”.
Ms Walsh said that Ms McDonnell accepted that other members of the Travelling Community came to shop at Iceland.
“It is not a matter of policy that Travellers are not permitted. Megan [McDonnell] has shopped there and continues to shop there,” she submitted.
The tribunal had earlier heard that the security guard was a Polish national and Ms Walsh said the adjudicating officer ought to “take judicial notice that a person who is not Irish would not have the ability to identify a member of the Travelling Community”.
Four of the complaints in the series were heard in full yesterday (Tuesday), with the fifth adjourned.
Decisions on the five claims are expected in due course.