‘I am not your employer’: Iceland owner hides behind opaque corporate structures as retailer issues legal proceedings against union

The owner of Iceland stores in Ireland – whose workers late last week wrote to management saying they hadn’t been paid – is refusing to take responsibility for ongoing mistreatment of employees, using a range of opaque structures in an attempt to hide his ownership.

Though last week Naieem Maniar claimed to one unpaid employee, “Just be very clear – I am not your employer,” yesterday one worker who’d gone on strike had her contract terminated with a letter signed by a company secretary and HR director of one of Maniar’s many companies.

Formerly the owner of Iceland’s Irish franchise through his company ACCHL before running into financial difficulties, Maniar has been repeatedly pursued in the High Court and has a list of adverse judgments against him. It is understood several tradespeople are currently chasing him over unpaid debts.

Late last week the legal department of Metron Stores – which now claims ownership of Irish Iceland stores and which is directed by a long-term business partner of Maniar’s – issued a High Court summons on representatives of striking workers. The workers had previously engaged both Maniar and his associates about continuing issues with conditions and pay.

“Maniar has done everything he can to break the brave and courageous members of the union. He threatened them personally with litigation. He called the strike illegal. He accused the Independent Workers Union (IWU) of scamming the workers and our GoFundMe of being a trick to make money. Despite all of the pressure put on the members of the union, they have remained resilient in the face of uncertainty and lack of proper payment and stuck to their guns,” said Jamie Murphy, IWU interim general secretary.

Meanwhile Fine Gael senator Mary Seery-Kearney has pledged to take up the case. “I have been meeting with Iceland workers who have been left without or left short on their wages for weeks now – it is unconscionable that the most vulnerable worker would appear to be exploited,” she told The Ditch.

‘I am the commercial manager for both Homesavers and Iceland ROI’

Retailer Iceland in February of this year sold its 27 Irish stores to The Project Point Technologies, a company directed by Naieem Maniar and with an address at 5 Old Dublin Road, Stillorgan, county Dublin.

The company shares this address with many of Maniar’s other companies, with the businessman directing at least 18. Of these companies, 10 are named a derivative of Centz – which trades as Homesavers. Maniar is also the general director of this retail group.

After Maniar’s takeover of Iceland’s Irish stores, a man called Jeffrey Priestley sent an email to the company’s workers.

“I would like to introduce myself: my name is Jeff Priestley and I am the commercial manager for both Homesavers and Iceland ROI,” he wrote, confirming that his responsibilities stretch across Maniar’s empire.

Priestley tried to reassure staff who had feared for their jobs after the takeover.

“I would just like to say as of last night Iceland ROl is now under new management as previously communicated by the HR director and the support team. I would like to welcome everyone on board and reassure all that – as a company all we would like to do is progress the business,” he wrote in the email on 16 February.

Priestley's mail came a day after the company that previously managed Iceland’s Irish operations – Iceland Stores Ireland Limited – changed its name to Metron Stores Ltd. The company’s previous directors had resigned and Carol McCartney had been appointed in their place.

McCartney, according to her LinkedIn profile, has since 2002 been the HR director for Maniar’s ACCHL, which previously managed Iceland’s Irish franchise before having an examiner appointed in 2015. Metron’s company’s secretary is now Ice Cosec Service Limited, a vehicle that serves as secretary for other Maniar companies.

‘I'm not your employer’

The following month the Independent Workers Union contacted Priestley.

“The union first became aware of issues surrounding Iceland workers when we met with workers in the Cabra store (which has now been closed) and got a rundown of the situation.  

“We then subsequently didn't hear anything until we met with workers in Coolock and the northside, who told us that they had thousands outstanding to them in unpaid wages. We then continued to research the situation further and discovered that this issue in fact existed in every single store in the country,” said Jamie Murphy, IWU interim general secretary.  

In an email to Priestley dated 24 March, the union wrote “Every week many of our members have not received their correct pay. Some have been emergency taxed, some are short hundreds of euro and some are waiting on their sick pay entitlements.” Priestley didn’t respond. A further three mails over the course of the next month to Priestley were similarly unanswered.

The union served strike notice on 9 May, which finally encouraged a response.

Despite Priestley’s earlier email to staff, in which he claimed to be the commercial manager for all Iceland and Homesavers stores in Ireland, the management company now tried to claim it had nothing to do with Iceland workers.

“Please be aware that Homesavers is not the owner or the operator of the Iceland stores in Ireland and has no association, be it legal, fiduciary or otherwise, with Iceland, its servants or agents, or any of its employees. It is clearly evident that Homesavers is an innocent party in this matter,” reads the letter, dated 16 May.

This was followed by correspondence from Metron Stores Limited, which now claimed ownership of the 27 Iceland stores in Ireland. Though earlier reporting in Ireland all named Maniar and his Project Point Technologies company as owners, now Metron wrote it was in fact the owner.

“Merton Stores Limited (formerly known as Iceland Stores Ireland Limited) is the owner and operator of all Iceland Stores in the Republic of Ireland,” the company wrote, misspelling its own name.

“Take note, that if you refuse to discontinue with your action including threatening strike action on Friday the 19th by 5pm on the 17th May 2023, we will seek the protection of the courts as set out here above,” the letter concluded.

It’s unclear who Metron’s shareholders are however Maniar’s business partner and company secretary vehicle both run the company.

Conditions for workers continued to worsen in Iceland stores. The IWU were forced to write to Maniar last Friday to inform him that staff hadn’t been paid. The same day, one worker rang him, seeking holiday pay he was owed.

Maniar was forthright. “Whether you accept it or not, I'm trying to work hard to save 400 jobs. What I keep getting is hurdles being thrown into me by so many vested parties. Why would somebody give you four extra days’ holiday?” he told the worker, going on to say he doesn't employ workers in Iceland stores.

“I'm not your employer. Just to clarify – you're employed by the company Iceland Stores Ireland Limited. So just be very clear I am not your employer, okay,” he said, despite the fact that Iceland Stores no longer exists, having earlier changed its name.

‘It is our intention to make sure every cent owed to our members is paid’

Despite Maniar’s persistent refusal to take responsibility for conditions in the stores, today one worker who went on strike claims they had their contract terminated through an email sent by Magdalena Cielsa, another company secretary of Maniar’s.

“Following on from our conversation on 24 May 2023, the company acknowledges that you have clearly stated you do not trust your employer. We understand this trust cannot be regained and unfortunately when trust breaks down in any contract or agreement between two parties the contract is untenable. On that note we accept your resignation and we have finished your employment on revenue and any outstanding payments due to you will be processed as a final payment,” reads the email.

Metron has also filed a High Court summons on striking union members, seeking “damages (including aggravated and/or exemplary damages) for unlawful industrial action”.

The union is resisting. “It is our intention to make sure every cent owed to our members is paid, their jobs are secure and there are no unfavourable or unfair changes to their workplace conditions,” said the IWU’s Jamie Murphy.

Fine Gael’s Mary Seery-Kearney will continue to meet with the workers. “I am also liaising with minister Neale Richmond about these vulnerable workers and I will be asking the WRC to prioritise their cases,” she said.

Maniar and Priestley declined to comment.

The Ditch editors

The Ditch editors