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Rejected Butcher loses dismissal case against supermarket where he worked for 28 years

He said to me: ‘F**k off, you’re like a big child,’” Mr Williams said, breaking into tears. “The feeling that I had that day was worthlessness"

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A butcher who broke down in tears as he described walking away from his job of 28 years at a Co Mayo supermarket has lost his claim for constructive dismissal.

The feeling I had that day? Worthlessness, total worthlessness,” the man previously told the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

The WRC has rejected Gerry Williams’s complaint against J&J Supermarkets of Main Street, Charlestown, Co Mayo, trading as Mahon’s Spar, where he worked from 1991 to 2019.

A solicitor for the supermarket’s owners, Joseph and Mary Mahon, said they were facing a “huge downturn in business” at the time with the butcher’s counter “haemorrhaging money” – and that Mr Williams “refused to engage”.

The complainant said that in August 2017, Mr Mahon told him there was “no more help coming for the meat counter” and he would have to carry out cleaning duties himself instead of this being done by a junior worker.

Mr Williams maintained it took a full two hours to clean the butchery area properly, while the Mahons said he was only asked to clean a bandsaw and block – a much smaller job which would have taken half an hour.

Mr Williams said he did so “under protest”.

“Customers were coming up – if they wanted something they were coming up apologising. I couldn’t stand for that. It was against everything I worked for. They’d look in and as soon as they’d see you cleaning they’d turn around,” he said.

He said he felt “undermined” and “belittled” by butchery and retail consultants who were brought in to discuss changes to the meat-counter operation. He left one meeting with them.

It was his position that a proposal by the owners to bring in vacuum-packed product instead of breaking down a side of beef on-site was a “serious diminution of his role” which would reduce him from a craft butcher to a shop assistant.

One of the consultants’ suggestions, Mr Williams said, was to move chicken from the serve-over cabinet in the butchery after two days to put it out for two more in a display fridge at the front of the shop.

Mr Williams told the hearing he objected to that on food-safety grounds and he would have “no part in it”.

The adjudicating officer, Brian Dalton, noted in his decision that the employer had “robustly rebutted any suggestion that standards had been compromised and their record spoke for itself”.

“The business never failed any audit or inspection and always placed health and safety to the forefront,” he added.

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Letters were exchanged, with Mr Williams understanding that he had been given a warning over refusing to clean the butchery, he said.

The complainant said he didn’t sleep for three nights after receiving it, and took sick leave for stress and anxiety.

On his return he was called to another meeting with Joseph and Mary Mahon, at which he alleges she said to him: “F***ing stress? Does that man [Joseph] not look f***ing stressed?”

She asked him whether he was refusing to do the cleaning, and he said his response was: “I am yeah.”

“After 28-plus years of what I’d consider good service, loyal service, I was never selfish with my time with the Mahons, with staff, with its customers. I just couldn’t take it any more,” he said.

He quit on September 4, 2019.

“I told Joe and Mary I had to go home. I couldn’t take any more of this. I was walking down the ramp and Joseph was following. Mary said: ‘Let him go, watch what he says, he has a solicitor contacted.”

He returned to fetch his coat and passed Joseph Mahon, he said.

“He said to me: ‘F**k off, you’re like a big child,’” Mr Williams said, breaking into tears. “The feeling that I had that day [was] worthlessness, total worthlessness,” he said.

His solicitor, Trevor Collins, argued there had been a “fundamental breach” in Mr Williams’s terms of employment and the conduct of his employer was so unreasonable that “mutual trust and confidence” had broken down.

It was the Mahons’ position that Mr Williams “found change difficult to cope with”.

“The business was facing very significant financial losses. The requests made to the employee were reasonable. The conduct of the employer when considered in the round and the pressures they faced was both responsible and considerate,” the company submitted.

“This is a sad case, as the employer and employee had worked together for more than [28 years],” wrote Mr Dalton in a decision published this morning,

“At the heart of this dispute is the cleaning of the butcher’s bandsaw and block,” he wrote, noting that there was a clear conflict in evidence between the parties on how much Mr Williams was being asked to do and how long it would take.

He referred to a letter sent by Mr Williams in which he said “it is impossible to adequately clean the equipment” when the meat counter got busy in the evening time.

“That narrows down what the task entailed to equipment, which is more corroborative of the employer’s version of what was requested,” Mr Dalton wrote.

“On balance I don’t believe that the cleaning duties required to be carried out amounted to just 30 minutes. I also don’t believe that they would require two hours,” he added.

He said the changes asked by the employer were “significant” but “not unreasonable” in the context.

“There were encounters between both parties that clearly were conflictual and at times words spoken in the heat of moment that were inappropriate. However, these comments must be viewed in the context of an ongoing exchange between the parties for several years against the backdrop of mounting financial losses,” Mr Dalton added.

He found the conduct of the employer was “not appropriate” at times but not “so unreasonable as to amount to a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence”.

He ruled Mr Williams was not unfairly dismissed, and rejected his claim.

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