On Thursday, a labor court in the southwestern German city of Mannheim ruled that a garbage collector who took a child's travel bed home after finding it in the trash was unlawfully fired. He must now be reinstated. The court found that his dismissal without notice was unwarranted, despite the fact that he did not follow company policy on objects found in the garbage.
In the decision, which was delivered by Judge Sima Maali-Faggin, the company must now re-employ the 29-year-old father of two, who had been working for the company for nine years, where he was primarily responsible for sorting recycled paper.
Treat It Like Garbage
The story goes like this: In December 2008, Mehmet G. found a child's bed in the garbage while on the job. He took it to his car, and once he finished work, he took it home, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, one 18-months-old and the other 5-years-old. His employer viewed the act as theft and fired him without notice.
In its decision, the court found that: "In objective terms, taking the child's bed away did qualify as theft and, as such, provided ... a valid reason for the firing." But the court ultimately voted in favor of the plaintiff in the belief that the punishment did not fit the crime.
A Balancing Act
In its decision, the court said it understood the employer's need to deter violations of company policy. But the plaintiff was only guilty of a very minor offense. The court assumed that the man would have been allowed to take the child's travel bed home if he had asked permission first, as this is standard practice in the industry. "Furthermore," the court found, "the bed had no other value to the defendant but, rather, would have been disposed of immediately."
The court's decision did not address the issue of whether one can really steal garbage. Instead, it focused on whether G. had followed company policy or not. Meanwhile G. claimed that he was not aware that taking things from the garbage was not allowed. But the court found that after receiving a warning in December 2007 after taking unused toilet paper out of the garbage, G. should have known about that policy. According to the company, the toilet paper still had value because it could later be recycled.
G. must now decide whether to return to his old job or look for one elsewhere. It's something he'd like to think over. "After events like these," G.'s lawyer, Thomas Karl, said, "things are usually poisonous."
According to Karl, the company must now pay G. backpay going back to December. The company, which can still appeal the case, had turned down G.'s offer to drop his complaint for €5,000 ($7,069) before bringing the case to court.
Echoes of Injustice
The case is similar to that of a supermarket cashier in Berlin who was fired after 31 years on the job for allegedly stealing €1.30 ($1.84) worth of bottle deposit slips. After a state labor court in Berlin upheld the grocery store's right to dismiss the woman in February, her case became something of a cause celebre in Germany. In a time when the government was bailing out bankers, the woman quickly came to be seen as a martyr of class conflict. Even Wolfgang Thierse, a vice president of Germany's parliament, called the court's decision "barbaric", saying that it might "destroy people's confidence in democracy."
Karl believes that the decision of the court in Mannheim shows "that firing people without notice for the most minor of violations goes against the general public's idea of justice," according to the Associated Press.
In fact, on Tuesday, Germany's Federal Labor Court agreed to review the cashier's case, though a date has not yet been set.