Rochdale employee wins payout from employer after unfair dismissal

Date published: 28 July 2023

A Rochdale worker, has secured more than £8,700 in compensation after a tribunal ruled that he had been 'unfairly dismissed for making use of trade union services'.

George Hadfield, from Rochdale, was dismissed in May 2020 by his employer, Falconex – an electronics supplier for the automotive industry – where he had worked as a project electrical engineer for around a year.

The action was taken by the firm’s managing director Pascal Roux after Mr Hadfield sought assistance from a union following concerns he had about workplace practices during the pandemic.

Despite subsequently returning to work after fearing that he’d lose his job, Mr Hadfield was told just days later that he was being made redundant.

Mr Hadfield instructed national law firm Thompsons Solicitors to bring a claim for unfair dismissal against Falconex. He subsequently secured £8,389.48 at an employment tribunal in July 2022, after it was judged he had been unfairly dismissed for making use of trade union services.

An employment tribunal last year heard how he became a member of the independent trade union Unite, “to give him some protection” after a colleague left the company after a dispute. Mr Hadfield said he was concerned he could also face problems.

In March 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Hadfield began doing some work at home as well as at the Littleborough company’s premises. Towards the end of April, Mr Hadfield received a phone call from the managing director telling him he was being placed on furlough (employees on furlough were entitled to 80% of their wages).

Despite government guidance stating that employees were not allowed to undertake any work other than voluntary when placed on furlough, the managing director told Mr Hadfield he would be paid a 20% top-up to his wages as an ‘incentive’ to take on voluntary work.

Mr Roux – who was representing himself – told the tribunal it was his understanding that employees placed on furlough could not work, but he believed there were exceptions to this, ‘especially if employees were paid a 20% top up to their wages’.

He said he left it up to employees on furlough to decide how much work they did.

Mr Hadfield said it was ‘apparent’ he was expected to carry out work whilst furloughed and explained he felt “pressured” to go into work, even after receiving advice from his union representative that it was illegal to work whilst on furlough.

He said he did undertake some work from home during this period because he felt pressured into doing so.

During a telephone call with the managing director, Mr Hadfield told him he was concerned about being asked to work whilst furloughed ‘as it was tax fraud’.

The tribunal report says: “Mr Roux accepted that his response was, ‘you are annoying me now, f*** off’.”

In his main witness statement, Mr Roux said he concluded Mr Hadfield “was no longer fit to work for Falconex and instead had become an obstacle” and decided to let him go.

In relation to Unite, Mr Roux stated: “his turning to a union showed he could not cope with the responsibility and was seeking refuge behind a third party. It could have been his parents and relatives, a colleague, a certification body or another technical issue,..; (sic) the result was blatantly obvious, Mr Hadfield no longer wanted to work for the team and Falconex Ltd, and was possibly looking for a way out. – I deemed that he was therefore untrustworthy: he was in effect ready to divulge key and critical information on key projects to external third parties to cover his incompetence in executing said projects. – Even worse he had become unreliable, even for a minor input, when it mattered most.”

The dismissal letter read: “The recent breakdown in trust puts you on top of the list of any redundancy we ought to implement to protect the business.

“For that reason, we would also never consider re-hiring you, whatever the circumstances, and we cannot furlough you as it would unfairly put a strain on the government resources.”

The tribunal heard Mr Hadfield was not given a right of appeal against the decision to make him redundant.

In an email to all staff, the company’s managing director said: “Recently, Mr Hadfield has shown a very poor judgment in challenging simple decisions made by Falconex, regarding furloughing, by involving Unite the Union, of which he is a new member. This was clearly a break of trust between Mr Hadfield and Falconex and it could only lead to a quick - during these tough times - parting of ways.”

Mr Roux also said in the email: “I will bend over backwards to be fair and sympathetic… until a line is crossed.

“Using a third party such as a union or a solicitor to enter a dialogue, is seen as a direct threat to the business, and simply put, if you're not working for Falconex then you're working against it.”

He claimed this was “a case for him to explain his decision to staff” and was trying to ‘reassure them he was in control of the situation.’ He admitted “some of the points he made were skewed towards using the memo to ‘express [his] personal views of unions’.”

The tribunal ruled Mr Hadfield had been unfairly dismissed for making use of trade union services.

Mr Hadfield said: “It was an incredibly scary time. I thought I was going to lose my house, such was the fear of losing my job. And when I was actually sacked, the uncertainty about whether I could secure another job during the pandemic caused so much stress and strain.

“What’s worse, is that Mr Roux knew the predicament I was in and used it as leverage to threaten me to go back to work during furlough.

“Ultimately, I’m glad I stood up to someone who I consider to be a bully. Unite and Thompsons gave me the confidence to take on my employer, something I would probably not have done on my own.”

Jamie Humphries, a principal employment lawyer at Thompsons Solicitors’ Manchester office, who represented Mr Hadfield, said: "This was a horrible experience for Mr Hadfield to endure. Being asked to go back to work during furlough, and then to be sacked for making use of his trade union, was repugnant behaviour by his employer.

“This case has wider implications for workers accessing trade union services, as it demonstrates the protection the law provides to those who are dismissed for making use of trade union services.

"I'm really pleased that we could secure a satisfactory outcome for Mr Hadfield, so that he and his family can move forward and embrace the next chapter of their lives.”

Stephen Pinder, acting legal director of Unite the Union, added: “Unite is committed to fighting for members' employment rights and holding anti-trade union employers accountable.

“No employee should be sacked or subjected to a detriment for seeking the assistance of their trade union.”

Managing director of Falconex, Mr Roux said: “We regret to acknowledge that, unfortunately, we have been unsuccessful in defending our position that Mr Hadfield was, in the main, made redundant. 

“During the time of Covid, which brought both personal and professional uncertainties (we lost a colleague to it), we took the difficult decision to make two engineer positions redundant to safeguard the interests of our larger workforce comprising 20 employees. Amid this complex context, we acknowledge that our approach in addressing George's concerns may have been inadequate, and we sincerely regret any mishandling of the situation.

“Unite, the union, became involved in the case during the peak of the Covid crisis when redundancies were prevalent across various industries, and while we understand their interest in advocating for employee rights, we feel we were picked on as an easy target for Unite to drive their point and secure a victory no matter the costs.

“This Unite engagement led to the involvement of high-level and expensive legal representation on George’s side, while we chose self-representation as the case was issued with a small claim (under £1,000).

“Having attempted to resolve it amicably, it then evolved into an unexpectedly high financial claim and, eventually, to a high penalty (over £8,000).

“We believed that appealing the hearing financial penalty, as indicated on the government website, would be upheld.

“Unfortunately, this was not the case, and the consequences were more substantial than anticipated, leading to additional costs and distress.

“The company’s primary focus has always been on the well-being and support of our employees. We have long provided flexible work hours, and even before the pandemic and related regulations, we accommodate remote work for the needs of single mothers during school breaks.

“Subsequent to this case, we have further expanded our employee benefits, offering a four-day workweek option and appointing a staff liaison officer to better understand and address the concerns, needs, and aspirations of our workforce.

“We recognise the importance of fostering a positive and collaborative work environment for our employees and have learned valuable lessons from this experience. Moving forward, we remain committed to continuous improvement and maintaining an inclusive workplace culture that supports our staff in their personal and professional growth.”

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