The director of a dental practice has denied under questioning that he “forged” an immigrant dentist’s signature when he applied for her work visa.
Dr Min Li has accused Jagannadha Muttumula and his wife Dr Hima Bindu Meda, directors of the Square Dental Services Ltd, of sacking her as penalisation for refusing to sign a new contract for €11,000 less than the firm agreed with the Department of Enterprise when it secured a visa for her.
Jagannadha Muttumula, a director of the Square Dental Services Ltd, was questioned at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) on Monday on foot of statutory complaints by his former employee, Dr Min Li.
Dr Min, a Canadian national, said she had been in Taiwan at the time Mr Muttumula claims she signed a contract for the €64,000 annually the department had stipulated, adding that if she had signed and sent it by email, her employer would have been able to produce documentary evidence to that effect.
“I put it to you that this contract was not sent to her and that you forged the signature sent to the department,” said WRC adjudicating officer Breiffní O’Neill as he questioned Mr Muttumula at a hearing on Monday.
“No, I didn’t forge that signature,” Mr Muttumula said.
Dr Min has lodged a complaint against her employer challenging her dismissal and accusing it of committing an act of penalisation in breach of the Employment Permits Act 2006 for refusing to sign a new contract cutting her pay from the €64,000 required for a critical skills employment permit as a dentist down to €55,000.
“We were fair to her and what she is claiming, that is not the reason at all,” said the employer, arguing Dr Min was dismissed on probation because of “poor performance” and because she did not get on with other staff – claims disputed by the complainant.
Dr Min said she had agreed to come to Ireland to work for the company, but only under the critical skills work permit scheme as the five-year wait for residency under the ordinary work permit scheme was a “deal-breaker” for her.
Although she had initially agreed to work for €55,000 and signed a contract to that effect, she said the Department of Enterprise refused to issue a visa to a dentist under the critical skills programme until her proposed salary was increased to €64,000 for a standard 39-hour week.
Dr Min said she was paid this salary on a pro-rata basis when she started work at the clinic on October 18th, 2021 – but that despite asking to see the revised contract her employer had sent the department with this new rate of pay, it was never provided to her.
She said that on November 3rd, 2021, about a fortnight into her employment, Mr Muttumula then presented her with a contract under which she would earn €55,000 for a 39-hour week.
“If I didn’t have a contract matching the critical skills visa, I would be working in Ireland illegally,” she said, adding that she refused a proposal from Mr Muttumula that she would “work extra days” the following month to “make up” for the higher pay.
“If I work extra hours, I won’t be in compliance. That will also interfere with my clinical judgment,” she said.
She refused to sign and received notice of termination a few days later, the tribunal was told.
Cross-examining Dr Min, the company’s representative, HR consultant Marius Marosan, said there was a conflict of evidence in the case, as the company had possession of two signed contracts signed by the complainant.
“I never signed this one ... I swear I never signed it. I’ve never even seen it,” Dr Min said when one was put before her.
Putting some pages before the adjudicating officer, Dr Min said: “If you see the signature, if you look at the signatures, they’re identical. See? Identical.”
“She’s saying this signature is doctored,” Mr O’Neill said. “She’s saying she never signed the €64k one,” he added.
Mr Marosan said in his submissions the contract had been renegotiated after Dr Min’s arrival.
“Without informing the Government department. The Department of Enterprise gave her a permit on the basis of €64,000 for 39 hours. They issued the permit in good faith and after the permit was issued with terms and conditions, they [the respondent] chose to try and change it,” Mr O’Neill said.
“They proposed they hadn’t approved the change,” Mr Marosan said.
“This is the nub of the case – when she questioned it she was dismissed,” Mr O’Neill said.
Mr Muttumula said Dr Min lacked experience and was “well aware we wanted to see her work”.
“We said the department is asking €64k but we are offering €55k so you [Dr Min] need to compensate for that,” he said, adding: “She was happy with this.”
“It doesn’t matter how happy she was. The €64k was for a normal working week. Overtime breaches the terms of that,” Mr O’Neill said.
Mr Muttumula said the complainant had been sacked while on a three-month probationary period, stating that her refusal to sign the contract for reduced pay was only one issue.
He said Dr Min was underperforming, taking longer than expected to see patients, and that other staff at the practice were “not happy” to work with her.
Dr Min said in response to the allegations of underperformance that she was earning a salary of “close to €80,000″ after 10 months’ employment with another dental practice.
Mr Muttumula said he had taken statements to that effect from his staff but accepted he had not discussed the alleged issues with the complainant during her employment.
“Don’t you think you should have discussed it with her?” Mr O’Neill asked.
“It doesn’t work like that in the dentist [industry]. If it doesn’t work, we’ll say bye,” the company director replied.
He said he was not an expert on dentistry and only handled “administration” at the firm as well as acting as a director, adding that his company would have had to close for the day in order for his wife and other staff to attend and give evidence.
The adjudicator denied an application by the company for an adjournment sought by Mr Marosan so that he could call staff from the surgery to give evidence.
“No, the hearing is today. You should have known they’d be needed today,” Mr O’Neill said, adding that any allegations they might make had not been put to the complainant in cross-examination.
He closed the hearing to consider his decision.
In secondary complaints, Dr Min also claims her employer made an “illegal” deduction of €1,000 from her pay over the two months she was working at the clinic to pay the visa application fee, in a further breach of the Employment Permits Act.
She also maintains her employer had her work without shift breaks or overtime pay in breach of the Payment of Wages Act and the Organisation of Working Time Act.
Those complaints are also denied by the dental firm.