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Clady Quarries ordered to pay former employees £120,000 after three-year battle

Courts justice

A Co Armagh firm, which had unlawfully withheld wages from a number of its employees, has been ordered to pay back more than £120,000.

Following a three-year battle, an industrial tribunal has found that not only did Clady Quarries unlawfully fail to pay seven of its employees nine weeks wages, but that four of those were constructively dismissed as a result.

Furthermore, during the course of the investigation, it was discovered that Clady Quarries had been deducting payments of £39.32 from one of its employees – James McGeown – each week since the commencement of his employment in 2011 – up until 2021.

Mr McGeown was deducted more than £20,000 over that 10 year period without his knowledge – and for a child that did not exist.

In 2023, HMRC confirmed to Mr McGeown that they had not received any child maintenance payments from Clady Quarries in that 10-year period.

The unlawful payments were uncovered when a group of employees, including Mr McGeown, took Clady Quarries to an industrial tribunal over unpaid wages and constructive dismissal.

Clady Quarries was founded in 1982 by two brothers, Brendan and Tony Vallely, and the business was known as ‘Brendan and Tony Vallely trading as Clady Quarries’, to which all seven claimants were employed. Tony Vallely would later buy his brother out of the business.

On January 22, 2021, each claimant received a letter from Clady Quarries stating: “Due to operational issues the quarry will close as off 6pm this evening and no one is to attend work or any other workplace until further notice.”

Each claimant continued to receive their normal weekly net wages on January 26, February 4, February 11, and February 19.

However, none of the seven employees received any further payment of wages thereafter.

Then, on April 20, 2021, some of the claimants received an invitation, in the form of a text message, to attend a meeting at the quarry that evening.

The text read: “All Clady Quarry employees are invited to a meeting at the quarry tonight at 7pm. Please inform your work colleagues, work will resume on Monday, April 26, 2021 for all employees.”

The meeting was attended by approximately 25 employees, as well as Tony Vallely, and the company’s outsourced HR advisor, Keith Smith.

No minutes of this meeting were taken and in the tribunal’s written outcome, it was stated that “there is considerable dispute as to what was said at this meeting”.

It added: “All of the claimants who attended the meeting gave consistent evidence to the tribunal that Mr Smith told everyone present that they were to await hearing from [him] as to any possible return to work.

“Tony Vallely’s evidence is that Mr Smith did not say this.”

The tribunal found that, “on the balance of probabilities…that the individuals present were told that they should wait to be contacted by Mr Smith before returning to work”.

Mr Smith was not called by the company to give evidence – a decision the tribunal drew “an adverse inference from”.

Despite Clady Quarries’ argument that the seven employees were not dismissed but rather “were on a period of lay-off from January 22 until the quarry resumed operating on April 26, 2021”, the tribunal found that Clady Quarries did not have a contractual right to lay-off the claimants either by virtue of their contracts of employment as “no contracts were ever finalised” and “no lay-off procedure was adopted” by the firm.

Furthermore, the tribunal found that the words “lay-off” were not mentioned at all by the respondent in the letter dated January 22, 2021. There was also no communication from the respondent from January 22, 2021 documenting a lay-off situation.

The tribunal rejected the company’s assertion that this was a genuine lay-off situation but rather “a retrospective attempt by the respondent to explain its actions”.

Mr McGeown, who was the lead complainant in the industrial action, commenced employment with Clady Quarries in April 2011.

The tribunal accepted Mr McGeown’s unchallenged evidence that he attempted to telephone Tony and Deirdre Vallely (who was in charge of payroll) on January 24, 2021 when he observed other employees attending the quarry – two days after being told to no longer come to work. Mr McGeown received no reply to this telephone call.

The tribunal further accepted Mr McGeown’s unchallenged evidence that he contacted HMRC in February 2021, regarding his payslips, following the cessation of the payment of wages from February 19 onwards.

When discussing the non-payment of wages with HMRC, the tribunal accepted that Mr McGeown queried an ongoing deduction of £39.32, which had been labelled as child maintenance, from his wages, since the commencement of his work with Clady Quarries in April 2011.

The tribunal also accepted that Mr McGeown attempted to contact, by telephone, Deirdre Vallely on February 23, 2021, to discuss these queries further. Mr McGeown received no reply to this telephone call.

The tribunal further accepted that Mr McGeown was informed by HMRC, on August 9, 2023, that no payments of £39.32 have ever been made to HMRC, by Clady Quarries.

In the absence of the company’s failure to provide any explanation to this deduction from Mr McGeown’s wages, the tribunal accepted Mr McGeown’s unchallenged evidence that he has suffered an unlawful deduction of £39.32 from his wages on an ongoing basis since the commencement of his employment in 2011.

On Tuesday, April 20, Mr McGeown attended a meeting at the quarry where he was told to await direction from Mr Smith about returning to work, however, Mr Smith did not make contact before April 26, prompting Mr McGeown to tender his resignation with a letter citing his various grievances, and that the “employment relationship has irrevocably broken down”.

At the date of his dismissal (April 26, 2021), the tribunal found that Mr McGeown was due nine weeks of unpaid wages and 10 weeks’ notice pay given his 10 years employment service.

Mr McGeown was awarded a total payment of £35,546.40, which included £20,446.40 of unlawful child maintenance deductions.

Six other employees were also awarded sums for unpaid wages and notice pay, while four were also awarded sums for unfair dismissal.

The payments for those six other claimants totalled £84,461.62, ranging from £5,415 to £22,424 each.

The decision was made earlier this month and Clady Quarries have until June 12 to make the payments.

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