A legal dispute has emerged between the Gold Coast City Council and two council cleaners who have been fired after taking a break to go and buy a meat pie.
The council has argued the workers failed to adhere to break times and the employees should have been working in Main Beach at the time, according to the Gold Coast Bulletin, but the cleaners believe they’ve been humiliated and victimised.
Documents obtained by the Gold Coast Bulletin reveal the incident took place just before 7am on October 24 last year, but the workers were dismissed last Wednesday following a union meeting earlier this week.
The cleaners are preparing to fight for their jobs in front of the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission.
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The Gold Coast Council confirmed the dispute to SmartCompany, but had no comment at this stage.
The Gold Coast Bulletin reports in response to a “show cause” letter, cleaner John Kamu said he had been working in Main Beach setting up barriers for the Gold Coast 600 car race when he and a fellow worker drove to Surfers Paradise to get money and a pie.
“This is where the victimisation begins. If we were caught maybe in Upper Coomera, Coolangatta, for example, that is where I would say we were out of area, not Surfers to Main Beach,” Kamu is quoted as writing.
Allegedly the council had “double standards”, having told workers at a toolbox meeting that if they needed a break to eat or drink or felt fatigued, then they should take a break.
“We were hungry, needed a break, and all of a sudden their break policies are gone out of the window,” Kamu is quoted as saying.
Workplace law expert Peter Vitale told SmartCompany there could be grounds to argue for unfair dismissal.
“It’s difficult to say from their stories alone because the council’s version of events isn’t really put forward, but what the story does suggest is there is some inconsistency in the application of the council’s break policy,” he says.
“If this is the case, then there may be some grounds for arguing the dismissal was unfair.”
Vitale says employers need to ensure break policies are reasonable and effectively communicated.
“There needs to be a good reason why in that employer’s operation you have to have a rigid rule around break times. If there isn’t a good reason, the policy won’t be enforceable,” he says.
“If the policy is reasonable, it then needs to be communicated clearly to the employees and the employer needs to be able to show that they’ve done this and the employees have understood.”
Outside of the pie shop in Surfers Paradise, Kamu says a ‘ganger’ (work crew foreman) approached him and his colleague and “berated and humiliated” them outside of the Pie Face store saying their smoke break wasn’t until 8am.
Kamu and his colleague have since received two show case letters about their conduct, one for a picture which was taken outside the pie shop.
Last week the pair were informed their jobs had been terminated.
Vitale says in this case it isn’t clear why the council would need a rigid break policy.
“There have been other unfair dismissal cases centred on employees taking unscheduled break and they’re typically at the more extreme end of the spectrum.”