A Dunnes Stores worker who was fired after admitting to eating deli food without paying has been awarded €8,000 by the Republic's Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT).
The retailer has been criticised by the EAT for spying on workers after becoming suspicious that staff were eating chips, chicken goujons and other food.
The tribunal said Dunnes Stores' investigation "fell short of acceptable practice" after its head of security confirmed to the EAT that he installed two CCTV cameras in a deli and retail area and this was done at a request from the store manager.
The tribunal heard the cameras were installed unbeknownst to staff after an anonymous call informed the head office that staff were consuming food.
Karen Deegan had worked in the Knocknacarra, Galway, branch for four years prior to losing her job in October 2011.
She was one of up to nine employees to lose their jobs over eating unpaid-for food.
John Douglas, General Secretary of MANDATE which represents 6,000 employees at Dunnes Stores, said yesterday: "Dunnes Stores has very serious questions to answer on its behaviour of installing cameras to place its workers on constant surveillance without them knowing about it."
The installation of the cameras without the staff's knowledge followed what the manager told the tribunal was evidence of serious breaches of company policy concerning food being consumed without payment.
Store manager Ken Teehan said that this breached the company's employee purchases policy. Employees who purchased food on the premises were required to get their receipt signed by a store manager.
The covert surveillance provided evidence in relation to eight incidents over two days in September 2011 relating to the worker who was subsequently dismissed and took the unfair dismissal action.
The store manager told the tribunal that "there was a general problem in the deli area concerning food being consumed without payment.
"There were issues with employees other than the claimant and they were all treated in the same manner."
Ms Deegan – who began work as a Dunnes deli assistant in 2007 – told the tribunal that she did not see any malice in her actions, stating that she "would have eaten a chip, goujon or chicken wing."
She told the tribunal that food which was not purchased or consumed was thrown out at the end of each day and that she apologised to the store manager.
The CCTV evidence was presented to the worker on October 7, 2011 at an investigation meeting and she admitted consuming food without payment.
The worker was suspended without pay and at a meeting the following day was dismissed from her job.
In its ruling, the EAT stated that "it acknowledges the seriousness of the issue and the fact that the claimant admitted taking and eating the food".
"However, the tribunal is of the view that the investigation and disciplinary process actually invoked by the company fell short of acceptable practice."
The tribunal found that the worker was unfairly dismissed, but was satisfied that she contributed two-thirds to her dismissal and accordingly awarded her €8,000 under the Unfair Dismissal Acts.
Dunnes Stores did not respond to a request for comment.