Organic farm must pay €8,000 compensation after telling HIV positive volunteer to leave

Organic farm must pay €8,000 compensation after telling HIV positive volunteer to leave

A US national, who is a lifelong environmental activist with a special interest in food justice, came to Ireland to work as a volunteer on an organic farm.

An organic farm discriminated against a volunteer trainee when telling him to leave after learning that he was HIV positive.

At the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), Adjudicator, Thomas O’Driscoll made the finding and has ordered the organic farm to pay €8,000 compensation to the man after finding that the request for the man to leave the farm in June 2019 was discriminatory on the grounds of disability under the Equal Status Act.

Mr O’Driscoll said “the aggravating factors” in the case demand that the award be at the higher end of the scale.

In the case, the man alleged that after being told that he could no longer work at the organic farm, two requests to have a shower were refused along with a request to use the enterprise’s WiFi system to organise travel out of Ireland.

The man had to walk a 6km round trip to a local pub to access WiFi.

The man further alleged that after driving him to a local railway station, the managing partner refused to shake his hand.

Humiliated and distressed

The US national told the hearing that he “felt humiliated and distressed by his experience as he was literally stranded in a foreign country, unwashed, with no money, and only soiled farm clothes to wear”.

In his findings, Mr O’Driscoll stated that he found the conduct of the organic farm - located in rural Ireland - upon learning of the trainee’s HIV status “to be unacceptable and transgressed not only the law, but was also below the threshold of acceptable conduct that reasonable people expect when affording equal opportunity to those with a disability”.

The complainant, a gay man, described himself as a lifelong environmental activist, with a special interest in food justice.

Mr O’Driscoll recorded that the trainee is HIV positive to the degree that is not transmissible and was on antiretroviral medication.

The man - represented by Maria Watson BL instructed by solicitor, Maureen Gourley of the Free Legal Aid Centres (FLAC) in the case - arrived from the Caucasus region in June 2019 to take up the volunteer position where over a period of three months he would be taught the skills of organic farming.

The trainee was a paid-up member of an unnamed Irish branch of a training and campaigning organisation and the organic farm was a host farm for the organisation’s volunteers and provides food and accommodation in return for assistance in working on the farm.

On the second day at work on June 18, 2019, the managing partner asked the trainee about his limp and in response the trainee said that the limp was caused by the antiretroviral medication he was taking to treat HIV.

The trainee also explained that his viral load was undetectable which meant that he could not transmit the virus.

The trainee reassured the managing partner that his being seropositive would not affect his ability to work on the farm, and that this was evidenced by the two days of hard work that he had already put in.

However, that evening, after the HIV status disclosure, both partners in the organic farm business told him that he could not continue working on the farm with immediate effect and that he had to leave the farm by Friday afternoon or by Saturday morning at the latest.

Shower refusal

The managing partner alleged that on returning from a local pub that evening, the trainee made rapid steps towards himand screeched into his face after the shower refusal.

However, the trainee denied that he acted in this way. He stated that he is a non-drinker and asserted that he came from the non-violent Quaker tradition, was a peace activist, and formerly taught conflict resolution skills to children.

He stated that he would never contemplate using or threatening violent behaviour towards another human being.

In his findings, Mr O’Driscoll stated: "Overall, I found the evidence of the complainant regarding the events of Tuesday, June 18, 2019 to be compelling and he detailed clear recollections on every point at issue.” 

The managing partner stated that he set up the business with his then civil partner and it employed 20 people and made profits of around €20,000 before tax.

The organic farm denied discrimination claiming that the trainee was asked to leave the farm, because it was believed that he was not physically able to carry out the tasks allotted to him, which in turn created a health and safety risk.

The managing partner stated that it was clear to him that the trainee was not capable of carrying out physical tasks necessary on a small holding.

He stated that he was a danger to himself and to his fellow volunteers.

The managing partner submitted that the disclosure by the trainee of his HIV status was after he had made the decision to terminate the arrangement, therefore no complaint of discrimination on disability grounds could be sustained.

The managing partner stated that he refused the trainee’s shower on the evening of June 18 on the basis that his partner and child were asleep in the main residence at that late hour.

He also told the hearing that during a conversation the trainee had told him about the difficulties and violence that he, as a gay man, had encountered in his travels in Europe.

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