Sandwich-gate plot twist! Why there’s more than meets the eye to the story of a cleaner sacked for eating a tuna sandwich at a law firm… PAUL BRACCHI reveals all

Devonshires, a leading London law firm, occupies suitably grand offices in the historic heart of the City.

Most of the 300-plus staff, including 52 partners, are based here in the Grade II-listed, late Victorian building in picturesque Finsbury Circus in the Square Mile.

The thriving practice, with a turnover of £43.6million, represents some of the world’s biggest multinational companies as well as banks, financial institutions and high-rolling private individuals.

Gabriela Rodriguez worked at head office, a few minutes from Liverpool Street station. However, she was not a smartly-dressed lawyer or important client but a cleaner — part of a vast, unsung immigrant workforce doing the dirty jobs many Britons, even among the unemployed, refuse to do.

For most of the past 16 years, ever since arriving in the country from Spain in 2008, Ecuadorian-born Miss Rodriguez, 39, a single mother, has been all but invisible, metaphorically speaking. 

Gabriela Rodriguez, 39, was sacked by Total Clean

Gabriela Rodriguez, 39, was sacked by Total Clean

Graham Petersen is Total Clean's head of operations

Graham Petersen is Total Clean’s head of operations

Until one afternoon shortly before Christmas when she was alone in the canteen of the Devonshires building — where ‘Sandwich-gate’ was about to unfold.

You may have read about what happened in the papers, or online, this week.

Laid out in the company kitchen were platters of food. Miss Rodriguez took a single sandwich — a £1.50 tuna and cucumber one from Tesco, to be precise — and put it in the fridge to have at the end of her £13-an-hour shift.

Neither she nor anyone else could have imagined the repercussions that would follow from such a seemingly innocuous moment.

The sandwiches, she says, were among the ‘leftovers’ from a client function in a corporate meeting room and were ‘probably going to end up in the bin’. It was ‘common practice’ at Devonshires, she explained, for staff to help themselves to any food that was not eaten on such occasions.

But the chain of events that ensued resembled both the script of a West End farce and a searing commentary on the plight of migrant workers in Britain today.

Miss Rodriguez ended up being fired by the contracted cleaning company for the ‘theft/misappropriation of client property’ (that’s the tuna and cucumber sandwich belonging to Devonshires) which ‘irrevocably destroyed the trust and confidence’ needed for the job and, as a result, ‘warranted summary dismissal’.

Yes, an executive at the company in question, Total Clean, really did write this.

Miss Rodriguez is now launching a claim against the firm for unfair dismissal with the help of United Voices of the World (UVW), a ‘grassroots trade union for low-paid migrant and precarious workers’.

UVW has accused Devonshires of either being ‘responsible for her sacking or complicit in it’ because they complained about her, it is alleged — something Devonshires strongly denies.

The publicity has resulted in embarrassment for the law firm (for serving up Tesco sandwiches, apart from anything else, according to several lawyers, commenting about proceedings online) and personal vilification for the unfortunate Graham Petersen, head of operations at Total Clean, who actually wrote the ‘sledgehammer-to crack-a-nut’ dismissal letter, but only with the approval of his HR department, it should be pointed out.

Gabriella Rodriguez, on the other hand, has become a cause celebre.

There can’t be many who don’t have sympathy for Miss Rodriguez who has to support a ten-year-old daughter and an elderly mother on a cleaner’s wage.

But is there more to Sandwich-gate than has so far emerged?

Gabriela was sacked from her cleaning job for taking a leftover tuna sandwich from a law firm kitchen and says she suffered 'unfair and inhumane' treatment

Gabriela was sacked from her cleaning job for taking a leftover tuna sandwich from a law firm kitchen and says she suffered ‘unfair and inhumane’ treatment

Her colleagues have demonstrated outside the central London HQ of solicitors Devonshires, where top lawyers earn £1.68million a year

Her colleagues have demonstrated outside the central London HQ of solicitors Devonshires, where top lawyers earn £1.68million a year

There is, according to someone who works for Total Clean and who agreed to speak to us on condition of anonymity. ‘There are two sides to every story,’ said the source.

‘There is no way we would have dismissed somebody in the way which has been portrayed.

‘There was a sandwich involved but it was not on a discarded platter.’

It was not a leftover, in other words.

‘Trays of sandwiches were laid out in the kitchen and were due to be taken into the meeting. Gabriela went across to the trays and removed a sandwich that was for someone in the meeting who had a specific dietary requirement. The sandwiches had not been discarded in any way, shape or form.’

The allegation that Miss Rodriguez took the wretched tuna and cucumber sandwich before and not after the important meeting at Devonshires puts a slightly different complexion on matters.

But few would disagree that her treatment was still harsh. She had worked for Total Clean, which posted profits of £1.6million last year, for two years without complaint, it seems, and had good references.

The latest twist, if true — and that’s a big ‘if’ — makes the decision to let her go without being given a warning more understandable.

Miss Rodriguez was asked about the accusation made by the source at Total Clean in a text message in Spanish because she does not speak good English.

She insisted she was telling the truth and believes she has become the victim of a smear campaign, adding: ‘At no time has it been suggested that the sandwich was prepared for someone with dietary needs.

‘I also don’t understand how a simple supermarket tuna sandwich can be the meal choice for someone with dietary needs.’

Which is a valid point: a standard Tesco tuna sandwich, it can be revealed in the spirit of journalistic rigour, is suitable for pescatarians who largely follow a plant-based diet but not vegetarians or vegans, who do not eat fish or seafood.

Another unanswered question of Sandwich-gate is: who actually saw Miss Rodriguez take the sandwich in the first place, regardless of when the ‘theft’ occurred?

She says she was the only person in the kitchen at the time.

Was she caught on CCTV? ‘No. Somebody saw her,’ the source at Total Clean claimed, but declined to give further details.

The farrago surrounding the ‘stolen’ sandwich may be farcical but it has been extremely damaging for all the parties concerned.

For Miss Rodriguez, obviously, who says ‘it was mortifying for me to be accused of theft’. Also for her former boss, Mr Petersen, 43, but for very different reasons.

Mr Petersen attended high school in Johannesburg in the late 1990s and has lived anonymously in the North-East of England, where he’s held managerial positions at a number of different cleaning firms.

An unflattering photograph of him sunbathing on an inflatable in a swimming pool, reminiscent of the memorable opening scene of Sexy Beast, the cult British gangster film in which an oiled Ray Winstone is spreadeagled poolside in the briefest of trunks, was published in the papers.

The contrast between the lives of Graham Petersen and Gabriela Rodriguez, epitomised in the Facebook snap of him in the pool, is hard to ignore, yet the photograph was taken 16 years ago in Turkey.

Admittedly Mr Petersen, who has faced public outrage over the sacking, showed little compassion towards Miss Rodriguez. But if the sandwich was indeed taken before the meeting, it at least provides some mitigation for his uncompromising stance.

Then there is Devonshires, which has a proud history dating right back to 1840.

Miss Rodriguez, who has Spanish citizenship, is not only suing the cleaning company for unfair dismissal, she is also pursuing legal action against Devonshires for race discrimination.

Had it not been for her nationality, the UVW argued, the firm would not have complained about her and she would not, therefore, have been sacked — something, again, that Devonshires denies.

The furore has proved to be a PR fiasco for the law firm and sits uneasily with its commitment to ‘corporate social responsibility’ trumpeted on its website.

The firm supports a number of charities which received £40,000 in donations from staff last year.

The scandal came to light a few days ago in the legal news and gossip site RollOnFriday under the headline ‘Cleaner sacked for “eating leftover sandwich” at Devonshires’. In the ‘exclusive’, readers were informed that the highest-paid member of the firm received £1.68million in 2023, and profits divided among staff, according to the latest accounts, amounted to £21million.

The treatment of Miss Rodriguez looked shabby by comparison.

Around 30 of her supporters, RollOnFriday revealed, protested outside Devonshires waving cans of tuna and handing out leaflets (titled, I Ate A Leftover Sandwich And Got Sacked) which asked and answered a string of embarrassing questions.

Question: ‘What was she sacked for?’ Answer: ‘Eating a £1.50 tuna sandwich from Tesco that had been left over from a meeting and was due to be discarded.’ Question: ‘Are you serious?’ Answer: ‘We know it’s hard to believe but it is sadly 100% true.’

Question: ‘Have we appealed to the goodwill of Devonshires Solicitors?’ Answer: ‘Yes, but they showed no goodwill . . .’

Some solicitors who read the account of Miss Rodriguez’s sacking made their feelings known in the ‘comments’ section of RollOnFriday.

‘Blimey, I’ve helped myself to leftover sandwiches from being a trainee through to partner,’ wrote one. ‘Guess I got lucky that there were no malicious or pompous partners around to report me to the SRA [Solicitors Regulation Authority].’

Devonshires vehemently denies being ‘complicit’ in the dismissal of Miss Rodriguez.

‘Devonshires did not make a formal complaint against Gabriela or ask for any action to be taken against her,’ the firm said in a statement.

‘Total Clean carried out their own investigation and the decision to dismiss Gabriela was taken without any input or influence from Devonshires whatsoever.

‘This is a private matter between Total Clean and Gabriela, but we made clear to Total Clean that we would not object, as we never had done, to Gabriela attending and working on our premises if Total Clean changes its position.’

Perhaps the key phrase in all this is that Devonshires ‘did not make a formal complaint’.

The last time Devonshires made headlines for the wrong reasons was back in 2018 when it was accused of ‘mind-boggling’ sexism for inviting female clients attending a housing finance conference for a ‘pampering’ afternoon of ‘Beauty, Bubbles and Business’, prompting one invitee to ask sarcastically: ‘Do they have a B******s, Beer & Business one.’ The faux pas made a few paragraphs in the diary pages.

For her part, Miss Rodriguez, who has now found other employment, says: ‘I wouldn’t want to return to Total Clean even if they did admit they were wrong and offer me the job back.

‘I’m an honest, single mum trying her best to earn a decent living.’

Total Clean has accused the UVW and Miss Rodriguez of spreading ‘misleading and inaccurate information’.

‘It is important for us to maintain the integrity of our workforce and service by ensuring we deal appropriately with any actions that undermine the hard work and reputation for our incredible team who conduct themselves impeccably,’ the company said in a statement this week.

‘Trust and honesty is of paramount importance.

‘All steps taken have been in accordance with UK employment law following the proper investigative and disciplinary process.’

Sandwich-gate brings to mind the famous scene from Friends, when Ross overreacts to someone eating his leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwich at work.

‘Well, what did the police say?’ asks Chandler, before adding: ‘Ross, it’s just a sandwich.’

Shouldn’t everyone — when all is said and done — involved in the sacking of Gabriela Rodriguez have taken a leaf out of Chandler Bing’s book?

Additional reporting: Tim Stewart

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