A railway signalman with 44 years of service has been sacked for taking a 20-minute break.
Peter Lee, 60, from Littlehampton, West Sussex, started working for Network Rail when he was just 16 years old.
He took a 20-minute break at Arundel station in January after he insisted he was entitled to a rest as his shift was more than six hours.
But he said he was dismissed for gross misconduct in May for “exercising his rights” as an employee.
Rail unions are now balloting to strike in an attempt to get Mr Lee his job back at the station, which is used by Southern Rail.
The Working Time Regulations Act 1998 states anyone working more than six hours at a time is entitled to a 20-minute rest break.
In 2015, Mr Lee won a grievance case that gave the signalmen at the station the right to those breaks. He has been fighting bosses to provide breaks for staff for eight years.
But when he arrived at work on Monday, January 8, the rota had been changed and there was no one to cover his break.
He told his line manager he would be taking the break, insisting it was his legal right.
Mr Lee said: “I told my manager I would be taking the break, giving him four days’ notice.
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“I also found three people who could cover the break but they refused to use them.
“On Thursday, I started the process of closing down the signal box – it takes 30 minutes – and then two managers arrived at the station and told me to go home.
“I never got the chance to close the signal box as the managers approached me to suspend me before I could. I would never put anyone travelling or working on the railway in any danger. Why couldn’t one of them cover it?”
Mr Lee was suspended with full pay until May 18, when he was dismissed for gross misconduct.
“I started here as a box boy when I was 16 – it’s my whole life, and it’s completely shattered,” he said.
“I have given them 44 years of my life, and now that’s it – I’m done. They have taken everything from me.
“The signaller at Arundel is now working without any breaks because the station is short-staffed. This needs exposing.
“On top of all this Network Rail is still fighting tooth and nail against allowing us to have breaks.”
Chris Rodway, secretary for the Sussex Coast branch of the RMT union, believes what happened to Peter is “clearly vindictive” and that there are safety issues to consider.
“He’s been arguing this case for eight years,” said Mr Rodway.
“The working time directive states that they are entitled to a meal break. What happened is clearly vindictive – one of the managers who came along that day was capable of taking over the box but instead used draconian measures against him for exercising his legal rights.”
A spokesman for Network Rail said Mr Lee closed a signal box “at the height of the weekday rush hour,” a claim he refutes.
The company said: “It is true that he gave notice of this intention, but he was given a direct instruction by management not to do so, was reminded of the agreed process that was in place and advised of the potential consequences.
“He was therefore disciplined for gross misconduct in failing to follow a reasonable management instruction. His dismissal was later upheld at appeal.
Mr Lee held a protest at the station on Monday, while a petition to reinstate him has reached more than 6,300 signatures.