Azhara’s justice: tackling discrimination and harassment

By Ana-Maria Cirstea and Dora-Olivia Vicol - 21 June 2020

Over ten years ago, Azhara arrived in the UK from Kazakhstan to study for a Master’s degree at a well-ranked London institution. She envisioned her move as a chance to improve her English and learn more about different cultures. She met a man who shared her interest, and fell in love. She got married and started a new life, then moved to a small market town in the south-east of England. 

Life outside of the capital’s cosmopolitan bubble was intriguing. Azhara saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the British way of life and meet what she refers to as ‘local people’. She changed a few different jobs until finally landing a role in the local branch of a large supermarket chain. Working 28 hours per week, she earned around £1,000 per month. Despite the job not matching her qualifications, she was content to have another opportunity to learn and apply her skills, working alongside ‘local people’ and experiencing a different type of life, away from the bustling capital. Until the treatment she received from some of her managers made it clear that, in their eyes, she was an outsider, routinely teased for her migrant status, job position and race. This is the story of her long struggle with discrimination, and the barriers she encountered in her pursuit of justice. 

The first everyday aggressions

Upon starting work at the supermarket, Azhara soon discovered a worrisome pattern. The smallest errors were sanctioned with shouting by her supervisor - though, she noticed, her UK-born colleagues did not receive the same berating for their errors. There was hardly a month without snide remarks and cutting comments, delivered gratuitously at every chance. So she filed an informal complaint to the store manager, hoping to address the issue and carry on. 

After weeks of silence, Azhara asked her line manager for an update, only to learn that “the issue had been resolved and all parties [were] satisfied with the outcome”. And yet, she received no apology or consultation. In fact, a similar incident occurred at the hands of a different supervisor, as if her grievance had fallen on deaf ears. Azhara considered submitting a formal complaint. This is where the reality of the company’s contempt for discrimination became apparent once again.

A company culture that tolerates discrimination

‘Do you understand that these people could lose their jobs?’, the store manager told her, as if to suggest that her discrimination was a negligible, tolerable injustice, not worth the hassle. It was a humiliating and disheartening thing to hear. It was the type of thing you take home with you, she explains, that cuts through your sense of self.  She switched teams in an attempt to leave it all behind; only to learn that this tolerance of discrimination ran deeper and, having dared to speak up, things would get worse.

One day, following a small error in completing a trivial task, Azhara was called into her manager’s office and presented with a letter of disciplinary action. She did not receive enough time to prepare her case and find a witness or representative, as the ACAS code of practice states. The manager asked her to discuss the matter there and then, 5 minutes after handing her the letter. It was swiftly deliberated that no action would be taken on that occasion, without communicating this decision in writing. But what the company did convey, at a tacit level, is that she was being monitored.

Things escalated soon afterwards. Azhara was spotted answering her phone during work hours. Her husband had experienced a life-threatening medical problem, and she worried for his welfare. But it was her mental welfare too that would be affected. Within a couple of days she was informally called into her manager’s office and threatened with suspension. She had received no letter in advance and was once again she was given no time to prepare her case or find a witness. It was too much. Azhara resigned on the spot, then later submitted an official letter of resignation together with an internal grievance against the store manager and her supervisor. The company sent out an independent investigator who promised to do his best.

It was the results of this internal investigation that constituted the final straw for Azhara. The outcome of the investigation bluntly stated that she had misunderstood the situation because “English was not [her] first language” - though her English had been good enough to get her an MA from one of London’s most prestigious universities. It claimed that managers had not shouted at her, but that it was simply her “interpretation”. The investigation glossed over the company’s failure to follow procedure during the disciplinary action meeting, or the impromptu threat of suspension. It simply stated that the company tried their best to retain Azhara despite “her many errors”, and that she should have approached them with her concerns. None of her initial complaints to the store manager were referenced. With the implacable authority of corporate communication, it was almost as it her complaints had never happened. This was a step too far.

The challenges of documenting harassment

In March 2020, Azhara approached the Work Rights Centre. Over the space of a couple of months, she talked twice a week with Andrei, her primary case worker. They identified key events in the complex patterns of discrimination and harassment. Andrei helped Azhara compile a claim for the Employment Tribunal, trying to fit the lived experiences of years of harassment within a fifteen-page form.

The biggest challenge was finding factual evidence to support the claim. Racist discrimination often takes the form of snide remarks - references to “your country”, stereotypes disguised as jokes, dropped in face-to-face conversation where it hurts, but not inscribed in written messages that can be used as evidence. Azhara did not have any emails or texts to support her case. Nor did she have written records of her complaints, disciplinary meeting, or threat of suspension. This is usually the case, explains Andrei, since workers rarely imagine that they will one day come to bring a formal case against their employers.

To find witnesses, Azhara turned to other co-workers who, she knew from experience, had experienced discrimination. But despite offering their encouragement in private, her colleagues refused to act in court for fear of losing their jobs. It was only after weeks of searching, that Azhara secured a witness statement from a former employee she found on social media. The next step in Azhara’s journey is finding legal representation, another difficult task given the fees of employment solicitors. Our team’s role ends here since we can help refer Azhara to a pro bono legal charity, but we cannot offer legal advice.

The risk of fighting giants

The challenges faced by Azhara in building her case are heightened by the size and reputation of her employer. While she struggles to find a legal representative, the company has no difficulty in assembling a robust team of lawyers. The same hierarchical structure of the company that protects abusive managers, now serves as a reminder of their power for Azhara’s colleagues, who fear to act as witnesses. 

While waiting for the decision of the Employment Tribunal, Azhara is also battling the personal consequences of harassment. The process of fighting for justice took its toll on her mental health, and she experienced bouts of depression. Having resigned around four months ago, Azhara is struggling to find work. She worries that making a claim against her employer might prevent her from finding a job in the future. Currently, Azhara relies on her husband’s financial and emotional support. ‘Without him, I would be in a very hard situation’, she adds. Yet, harassment comes with a stigma of its own. When it’s so easy to imagine life abroad through the rose tinted filter of social mobility and adventure, Azhara is ashamed to tell her extended family and friends about the problems she encountered with her employer. 

The ‘power to defend myself’

In the face of all this suffering, Azhara remains determined to find justice. She hopes that the company will reach an agreement prior to a hearing, and that her action will help prevent further abuses - even if just to protect the company’s reputation. We cannot know if she succeeds. Our team has explained that there is a possibility that the case will not even be picked up by a judge, due to the lack of evidence. An even bleaker possibility exists, where Azhara would need to reimburse the company for their legal fees, up to £5,000.

Despite these risks, Azhara remains determined to pursue her claim. She refuses to appear as a victim, explaining that her claim helps her stand up to bullies, even if the odds are lopsided. Azhara sees her fight for justice as a show of resilience, her ‘power to defend myself’ as she puts it. 

Moving forward

Discrimination is not just a question of employment rights, but basic human decency. As one of our expert case workers frankly explains: “When someone takes away your money, you get annoyed. But when they discriminate against you, it hurts, it’s personal”. It affects your sense of self. 

Fighting discrimination in court is a complex, multiayered obstacle course. The lack of written evidence hinders the credibility of Azhara’s claim against her employer. The power struggles involved in battling a large company, in turn, erode at the confidence of witnesses, and create a whole set of financial risks for the plaintiff, making it even harder to fight back. This is a David and Goliath battle that takes a lot of courage. And notably, throughout this process you are required to relieve and evidence the trauma of everyday abuses.

Despite all these challenges, Azhara’s story shows the impact that casework can make. A small team of caseworkers working from their homes in the middle of a pandemic are no match for corporate law firms who bill by the minute. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the money invested by Azhara’s employer in their legal team exceeds the budget of the Work Rights Centre for a term.

But some people will not give up. While still struggling with the effects of years of harassment, standing up for oneself can bring a sense of justice and the small comfort that, while mistreated, she is not beat. At the time of writing, her case continues. As does her sense of hope.

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