Adelaide | A car repairer has been ordered to pay compensation to an apprentice after work supervisors called him “soft”, suggesting he should “go back and live with mum or become a hairdresser”.
While accepting that “it would be naïve to consider that “robust” language is not a feature of automotive workshops” the Industrial Relations Commission found the treatment of the Adelaide apprentice was “old fashioned” and did not fit contemporary standards of management practice.
“..but this is not uncommon in small businesses in certain industries,” the commission’s deputy president Karen Bartel conceded in the case of auto-electrical apprentice Guy Bentley and his employer Matlin Auto Pty Ltd.
In the hearings before the commission, Bentley claimed that he was sacked the day after he filed a complaint of bullying.
After seeking reinstatement and back pay, the apprentice was granted six weeks’ pay in an interim decision while the commission considered the question of re-employment.
“At this stage we are hesitant to return the apprentice to the workplace,” the commission’s decision states.
“While it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he and (supervisor) Mr Towns could establish a productive working relationship, the evidence tends to indicate otherwise.
“We are also cognisant of the bullying complaint currently with SafeWork SA, which includes a complaint against Mr Towns, and the apprentice’s diagnosis of stress/anxiety arising from his employment.”
The dispute dated back to November 2011 when Bentley transferred as a second year apprentice from Webb Auto Electrical (Webb) where he had started his training in mid-2010.
It started well, with evidence tendered to the commission showing the apprentice’s supervisors considered he had “a good aptitude for the work and is a capable apprentice when he puts his mind to it”.
“In relation to the apprentice’s performance on the job, Mr Towns and Mr Lepore stated that for the first three months or so he was diligent and enthusiastic about the work and performed to a high standard,” the commission heard.
“However, it was their evidence that after this initial period the apprentice developed a lazy attitude and adopted a careless approach to the work he undertook.”
When the supervisors made their concerns known, the relationship soured.
“Mr Towns stated that when he instructed him on the best way to proceed, the apprentice would challenge the advice and argue with him,” the court file shows.
“Mr Towns found this frustrating and believed it showed a lack of respect for his experience and authority.
“The apprentice stated that the employment relationship with Mr Towns soured after approximately six months, when Mr Towns attitude toward him changed.
“He submitted that Mr Towns would not deal with his queries, often walking away when he asked questions and that Mr Towns swore when directing him to perform work.
“For his part, Mr Towns indicated that there was only one occasion that he swore at the apprentice and this occurred on 27 November after the apprentice failed to respond.”
The evidence summary shows Towns agreed that it was likely that he raised his voice, telling the apprentice to “f#cking wake up”.
During this period, the apprentice, Guy Bentley was keeping notes, later used to file a bullying complaint citing treatment by his other supervisor Vince Lepore.
He detailed instances where he was told “I was no good at my job”, “that he may sign me off early so he can f#ck me off”, I was useless, he was “sick of my sh#t”, and that he wanted an auto electrical apprentice and doesn’t think he got one. “I was told in front of you, which is belittling and unacceptable,” the complaint stated.
Lepore stated in evidence that he was distressed over the complaint and at a subsequent meeting on 3 December 2012 he apologised to the apprentice for the manner in which he had spoken to him.
He stated that his apology related to two outbursts against the apprentice in October and November respectively.
The “robust” treatment was also acknowledged by the other supervisor, Neil Towns.
“All present at the meeting agree that Mr Towns said words to the following effect to the apprentice: that he was ‘soft’ and should go back and live with mum or become a hairdresser; that he refused to train him; and that the complaint will give the apprentice a bad name in the industry.
“Mr Towns’ evidence in the proceedings was that he did not regard this behaviour as bullying and that he was simply trying to convey that the apprentice should ‘toughen up’ and try to get along with people.
“On at least two occasions in the course of his evidence Mr Towns referred to his experience in the Army and that this sort of thing would have been shrugged off and laughed about later.
“He did however state that he did not intend to belittle the apprentice and apologised if this was the effect of his comments.”
The apprentice returned to work after the meeting – shortly after he was called to a further meeting where according to his notes, he was told that they couldn’t work with him anymore because of the complaint he made and he was asked to sign a form terminating the training contract. The apprentice refused and was told not to come to work again.
The commission noted that medical certificates dated 21 January and 4 February 2013 indicate that the apprentice suffered “stress/anxiety” but was fit to return to pre-injury duties.
“..without further medical evidence as to his condition and/or an outcome on the bullying complaint, the Panel finds itself currently constrained in providing the relief of re-employment sought by the apprentice.
“We require evidence that he is cleared to return to work by a medical practitioner who has been informed of the issues in the workplace and evidence as to the status of the bullying complaint in order to reach a final conclusion on the appropriate remedy.
“In the interim it is appropriate that the apprentice receive some compensation.
“..we will make an interim order for payment of an amount equal to six week’s pay, with the potential for some additional compensation depending on whether the contract of training is terminated and the circumstances of the apprentice since dismissal.”
The commission will continue to take further submissions from the parties.