Monday, 10 May 2010

When justice was done!

Something seemingly impossible happened on Friday 7th May 2010, (and no, I’m not talking about the endless election saga!).

I came to know last night that finally, after 3 years of bullying, abuse, harassment, intimidation and unwanted sexual advances, my excuse for a former Manager was sacked! Yes, he was fired: given his cards, expelled from the organisation!! He was found guilty of Grosse misconduct and will not be entitled to either references, nor an exit package!
I was sent a sms message by a colleague informing me of this, and I swore I’d keep that message forever, part of me could barely take it in as I read the message over and over, and over again!! My uninterested parents were asleep on the sofa when I rushed from my room to tell them! I guess you have to be there to get it: and its not an exaggeration if I say that this news has changed my life!!

If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll recall me writing about all this in a rather tangential manner, both before my departure and some more after I left, but I never really had the guts to go in to detail: partly because every blog has lurkers, and you never know who really reads your words and with what intention: coupled with the fact that, as I am still out of work, and trying desperately to get back in to my sector, I didn’t want to be seen as the one rocking the boat as it were!! Now that justice has indeed been done, I figure I have nothing to lose, and might even benefit from sharing my side of the story, and insuring that my name is cleared before uninformed idiots come to their own conclusions!

In October 2008, I began working as Outreach and Development Manager for Inclusion Scotland, a leading National user lead disability campaigning organisation. My role was to support new and developing user lead groups with every thing from constitutions, to funding applications, recruitment and media skills: basically, any thing they required to build the capacity of their groups or get themselves off the ground. A fellow activist advised me to apply for the job in the first place: I was working part time by then, with a government funded project that was set to close, and he figured the self-governance and opportunities for creativity and activism would suit me down to the ground! Inclusion Scotland was traditionally recognised as a pretty radical movement of disabled people! Not least because it had a full board made up of disabled directors, a good quota of disabled staff, and a disabled project manager, MR. William Campbell. This manager (referred to from here on as WC), was more commonly known by many as the marmite man, (i.e., you either loved him, or hated him with a passion!). I first came across Inclusion Scotland and WC in 2005, while working for an employment project. Inclusion Scotland did, and continue to, send out a very informative weekly news letter with disability related news, comment, articles, job vacancies and all kinds of other useful titbits for Scotland based disabled people. I happened to see the manager’s contacts at the end of it, and one afternoon, wrote to congratulate him on this fine piece of news compilation! He Emailed to thank me for my kind words, and called me a few days later to expand upon the contact! It turned out we had quite a bit in common: both visually impaired, both activists, both committed to the movement or so it seemed! I later came to know from friends that he had something of a questionable reputation, but back then I was new to disability politics, and was determined that rumours weren’t going to inform my judgements, as they often did in other areas of the sector! Back then, WC was busy arranging a seminar on integrated education, and as this has always been one of my campaigning priorities, he asked me to speak on my personal experiences and work being done. My talk was a big hit, and I was quite overwhelmed with the responses from Inclusion Scotland directors. WC was equally taken in, and it seemed for a few months after that I was being “groomed”, (yeah OK, poor choice of word but …, not that bad given the context of what is to come), but although WC kept in touch with me, I soon fell out of favour: he is horribly insecure, and so doesn’t get too intimate with any one who is competent, thus exposing his blatant incompetence, .., but more on that later!

So, I applied for this job, and to my amazement I got an interview! I was in 2 minds whether to go: my then job still had a few months left in it, plus, I was travelling to Canada for a conference shortly after, and was busy writing my lectures and dealing with other logistics. Most significantly, it was the middle of Ramadhan! And since my health has deteriorated, I am generally weaker than most during fasting! I had absolutely no idea how I’d be able to hold down a job interview under those circumstances, but after procrastinating way too long, I decided to go: nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that!
The interview proper was where my troubles began! Any wise person would have given up there and then and headed home! I didn’t receive details of when/where the interview would be held till the day before, and franticly had to rush together a powerpoint presentation in the interim, turning my nerves to jagged fragments! On the appointed day, I made my way to a city centre hotel, and was settled by 3 PM in time for the interview at 3.30. As I nervously thumbed through my notes, a woman came and asked me if I was Roshni; when I confirmed my identity, she calmly told me my interviewers were coming from Edinburgh, and would be a few minutes late due to traffic! I smiled and told her that was fine; (I was more surprised that they were coming from such a distance! Was I the only person they were interviewing? Or, were they interviewing all night?), God: I thought, that’s dedication for ya!
3.30 came, shortly followed by 4 PM, and there was no sign of my interviewing panel! I was fed-up by now: it was ramadhan, I was in need of cold water, I was dizzy and tired and felt that any decent person would have cancelled knowing that they had already wasted 1.5 hours of a candidate’s time! 4.30 came, and at 4.45, my interviewers wandered in! they casually apologised to me, as though they had perhaps been delayed for a matter of seconds, then went to their rooms to dump bags and order dinner! I was raging: were it not for the fact ramadhan requires calmness, I’d have told them where to stick the interview and walked out! Worse was to come though: they then told me how, they had not been able to secure a room for the interviews to take place, so did I mind being interviewed in the bar? …, I fell silent: was this actually a question? I was shocked: why the hell had they opted for interviews here if there was no room? How many dam hotels are there in this area!! Besides, they have meeting rooms at their offices where they could have easily done the deed! To add further insult, MR WC pipes in with “if that doesn’t suit, we can always use my room!”, at that point, I decided that the bar would be a most favourable option, and we took a corner table, in the presence of business men and city slickers swigging their evening pints after a day’s work! The rest ordered their drinks, and asked me if I wanted something: (guess the hijaab didn’t give it away!), “I’m fasting”, I said dryly, hoping that this might extricate a more sincere apology (it didn’t!).
The interview was horrible, I knew by the end of my presentation that they hated me, and I was horrified when one of their totally blind directors asked “so, Ra, …, Ra, …, how will your faith affect your job?” er …, not only can he not pronounce my name, but how did he know I was Muslim? How did he know I was in hijab!! My “ramadhan” convo hadn’t happened in ear shot of his: clearly a discussion had gone on about my being Muslim, and converting etc. I answered the question as best I could, but wondered all the while whether or not non-Muslim candidates had been asked the same! It was a relief to finally get home: eat, take my medication and sleep for around 14 hours! Not only that, but I woke up knowing it had all been useless, as they hated me, and would never speak to me, ever again!!
Imagine my shock then, when, 10 days later, WC called to offer me the job! I was shocked; wished I could have had more time to think (and find a reason for refusing!). I thanked him profusely and expressed my shock, but regretted I would probably not be right for them: I had to offer a 4 week notice period at work, and was then going to Canada for 3 weeks: the late start would doubtless not be what he wanted! But he even compromised on that, saying they really liked me and would do any thing they could to accommodate me! …, well, I had no choice but to accept!
When I started, WC was alone in the office with me, and took me in to the back room to go through my duties! While the work seemed reasonable enough, I was worried by his continuous reminders about my being on “probation” for 3 months, and another comment about my hijab being a breach of health and safety regulations, and how he’d need to have it checked! My hijab had never been a problem before, and its not like I was working with dangerous machinery or something of that nature!
Further alarm-bells rang when I started getting in to the work: I was shocked by how small a membership base they had for a national organisation, and moreover, how that membership had been steadily dropping each successive financial year! WC gave me a list of contacts who could help me with a resource pack he wanted me to develop, yet each person on the list I contacted either had nothing to do with such resources, or else never responded back to me. I had no contract, nothing in writing, my work was merely governed by a series of one-to-one meetings (well, I’d call them rants), with WC himself! None of these were witnessed, nor were they minuted! If I kept my own minutes and asked him to sign, he’d refuse! If I had any questions about my role, he’d simply send me the funding application he’d sent to the government: it was all circles! He expected a very high turn-over of work from me, which I could have handled! Only, he wouldn’t let me do any thing on my own! If I held a meeting, he had to be there, and if his dates didn’t fit in with mine or the others, the meeting was cancelled! This meant I was falling further and further behind on every day tasks, thus incurring even more of his rage! I didn’t know what to do: I was alone, new in the door, I could complain, but as he said! I was on “probation”, and with no contract! He could throw me out at any time and I’d have no recourse, no one to support me, potentially no food and no home! So I kept quiet, tried to grin through the pain and keep my head down! My head, however, featured once again, when, in another rant session, he asked me why I’d not checked out hijab with health and safety! By now, I was smelling a rat and felt I might need to start gathering evidence to back up any claim in the event of worse happening. I Emailed him a day or so after, asking if he still wanted me to speak to health and safety, and asking him for a number, and a note of who I should speak with: no reply ever came, but I stored the Email! I did the same when he denied me leave for hospital treatment, telling me I had to take it from my annual leave entitlement! But by this time, he too might have been suspicious of me, so quickly replied telling me I could take medical leave, there was no problem!
He had other ways of making me pay though! He kept piling on the work, and I watched my health deteriorating every day. I lived on black coffee and adrenaline all the while, not meeting friends because I was tired, upset and irritable. I have a stress related migraine condition (amidst my many health problems), it got worse and worse, till it was common for me to spend 4 days out of 7 unable to even stand up from my bed! My long absences resulted in his discussing the ins and outs of my health with a fellow director of his! And, as she was a doctor in a previous life, she saw fit to lecture me about my conditions and how to manage them, even going so far as asking for contacts for my family doctor (which I of course refused!).
One day, I was called by the access to work team, for an equipment assessment for my new job. Access to work are a government project who fund any adaptations a disabled person may require in order to do their job. The scheme is very much in demand, and it can sometimes be difficult to get appointments when you want them! My delay in getting one caused no end of rage between WC and myself, he even wrote in the directors report that I was falling behind because of it (I wasn’t!). WC had left for the day when my call came, and as I had nothing urgent work wise for the following day (A Friday), I took it up, Emailing WC to tell him where I was going, and that if he had any objections, to Call me in the morning! I heard nothing from him, so assumed all was well. That night, he Emailed, saying he hadn’t been happy about my decision, and wanted a word with me on Monday. I replied, saying I was happy to talk to him, but that I had acted in the organisation’s best interests, and that as he hadn’t responded in the contrary, I had gone ahead as per my instructions to him. I assumed that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t! he called me on Saturday evening, fully drunk, and cursing me for every thing he could think of. I stood there stunned, holding the phone, listening and cursing myself for not having a tape recording machine to hand! I told a colleague the next week who was adamant that I should act on things, but I was still too scared to do so. Things got progressively worse between us, until it was all taken out of my hands on 18th December 2008. It was our last working day before Christmas, and the plan was that we’d have our last staff meeting of the year, with some drinks (WC has to have drink with every thing), and then we’d all go our own ways (well, that is, the rest of the staff had organised a lunch together in secret, without him!). The meeting started quite normally, but WC got the drinks underway before we even started (about 9.30). He got increasingly drunk, and the bulk of his alcohol induced anger fell on me, he would continually turn on me, shouting and swearing at me in the presence of colleagues, often pointing a finger aggressively in to my face or yelling over me that I was a stupid Muslim and didn’t know what I was talking about! I soon excused myself and spent the remainder of the meeting in the bathroom, wondering what in the world I’d done to evoke all this! Over lunch, colleagues informed me that whether I agreed or not, they would write collectively to the directors, voicing their concerns about my safety and well-being at work given what they had just witnessed. After Christmas, I took an extended leave from work, on the basis that I was suffering severe stress. When I got back, one of the directors called me for a “return-to-work meeting” to discuss my absence, and as she’d already received the letter from my colleagues, what I had to say came as no shock to her! Later that week, WC was suspended from work pending investigation, (I never saw him again!).

An in-depth directorial investigation ensued, each of us had to submit written accounts of what had taken place, along with Emails and other evidence to back up our claims. While I did all of this, there was a clear flaw with my submissions, (you might have guessed by now). WC, in his wisdom, had always conducted the heavy stuff in his famous one-to-one meetings, as those were neither witnessed nor minuted, how was I to evidence they had even happened? It was, after all, my word against his! It was at this time that I came to know that this behaviour I had witnessed was not new, WC had sexually harassed and bullied at least 2 other female staff members, one had left due to stress, and the other, although still there, had been forced to sign a document stating that she had settled her differences with WC, and that nothing had ever “gone wrong” between them, (they are so lucky papers didn’t get hold of all this!). While the other staff backed me, the previous evidence was not considered along-side mine, moreover, the directors were very split on whether or not to believe me: a couple did, but the majority did not, and amidst all this, WC continued his violent, aggressive behaviour, this time accusing the directors of bias and even taking out grievances against the investigating officer! The company then had to bring in external investigators, costing every one time, energy and a great deal of money: cash, that a Small NGO should be spending on development rather than justifying the existence of such a vile excuse for a human being! The investigation rumbled on for months, leaving us all in a strange limbo. We juggled our work with demands from the directors for meetings, reports and evidence for the ongoing investigation. As the months past by, larger and larger wholes appeared in WC’s so-called management, and we often had to drop whatever we were doing to sort out accounts, policy responses or respond to other unmet demands from the Scottish government. As the months went on, it became increasingly evident that WC had them over a barrel, he was threatening them with a tribunal, and as none of the directors has much HR expertise, they believed he had a chance! It was my word against his, and although I’d never been given the opportunity to submit any evidence in person, most of them had decided I was lying and were fast turning on me! I was desperately seeking an exit route, when in October 09, the seemingly final nail sealed my professional coffin! They said that he’d been given a written warning, and would be back at work within a couple of weeks! I remember we were manning an advice stand at a large exhibition that day, and I kept having to excuse myself as I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I was so upset, dejected and angry! I’d gone through the pain of the last year, and the recriminations from directors who didn’t trust me, the fear of losing my job, and the loss of family support, (you can imagine! They told me if he had a problem with me, to grow up and take my hijab off, and stop making an issue out of it!).

Around this time, I received news of that housing traineeship (I know, it resembles something of the holey grail now!). The organisers knew of my plight, and had even given me letters of support, so believing they meant what they said, I quit my job in December 2009, believing that at worst I’d only be out of work for a couple of months. Before leaving, I requested an exit interview, and submitted a further resignation letter, stating that the soul reason I was leaving was because of this evil man, and the stress and trauma the investigation (and lack of justice), had done to my life, my health and my career.
WC returned to work in December 09, but wasn’t around for long! A colleague of mine left in February, stating the same reasons for her departure, (she was the woman who had been abused by him first time around). Moreover, following my departure, he was using her for a punch bag, choosing to believe she had put me up to complaining in the first place. Her and my resignations combined, prompted another suspension for WC, and more investigating followed. To this day, I do not know precisely what clinched his final exit from the company, but I can tell you that it came as a massive shock to me, and all those who worked with me. Sadly, WC is not an uncommon figure to be found across the voluntary sector. Just like him, most of them are self-appointed, by unskilled boards of directors, most of who are his friends, and even if they are not, his passion, or even the fact that he is a disabled person is usually enough to keep him safe. They have a strange, patronising utopian outlook on disabled people, I remember my own directors saying to me “how can he possibly discriminate against you, he is blind himself! Maybe he didn’t know what he was saying, he is mildly deaf after all!”, if only all disabled people were so nice!
You might wonder why I’m happy? After all, what have I gained: I’ve no job, and don’t know when I’ll ever get one. The organisation I worked for is on its knees, likely to lose funding and status on every front, plus, WC would have retired in a few years, he was on a massive salary and has a comfortable pension to fall back on: even if he doesn’t work, it will make little difference to his lifestyle, unlike the affect of his behaviour on mine! But for me, the fact that justice has ultimately been done is enough. For all that is wrong with the NGO sector, there is allot right with it, the problem is that figures like WC often overshadow the dedicated workforce of passionate people we have, and we need to insure that doesn’t happen. We know anecdotally that more and more disabled people are discriminated against at work, and suffering illness because of it, we need to route out such figures and encourage the victims to stand up and report what is going on. For a while, I thought of going to the papers, TV, radio, telling my story to all to clear my name and expose his evil, but in the end I let go: what good would it do now, I wanted this man out, and he has gone, leaving me free to rebuild my life, and let the truth speak for its self, especially in the lives of those who called me a lire! Truth/Huq will ultimately out, as a light through the dark, no matter how one tries to hide it, alone or in a collective. I only pray that others in a similar position learn from my story and take action to change their own realities. I have suffered allot, and lost even more, but I sleep easier each night knowing that this man is no longer free to intimidate, harass and destroy those around him: justice has a name, ……, and its Roshni tonight!

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