By Ana-Maria Cirstea and Dora-Olivia Vicol - 06 June 2020
Omar is a middle-aged Italian man of Moroccan origins, who first arrived in the UK over 11 years ago. He lives in London with his wife and four children, the oldest of whom is in his twenties. Until August 2019, Omar had been working as a street cleaner for a company of reputation, in what he describes as a strenuous and physically demanding job. Until he was suddenly dismissed, rendered jobless, and left looking for work. This is a story of his fight back.
In the summer of 2019, Omar learnt that he suffered from a condition which fundamentally changed the type of work he could do, now and in the future. He had been coping well in his physically demanding job for over a decade. However, over the course of the past year he noticed a throbbing pain and swelling in his knuckles. The longer he worked, the worse the joint pain became. Omar took painkillers to help with the pain and carried on, until he received his diagnosis - osteoarthritis in his hands, slowly developing in his lower limbs as well.
The news of this chronic condition meant that Omar’s joints would grow more painful as he advances in age. It also meant that he needed to completely change his work and lifestyle. Following the diagnosis, Omar provided his employer with a medical note from his GP. The document explained that he became unable to lift anything over 5 kilograms and recommended that Omar be offered a new role. Any tasks requiring repetitive handling and gripping would worsen his condition. Working in cold or damp environments would also heighten the inflammation in his joints. Omar expected the company to provide him with a different role, whether in their offices or as a driver. For a while, it even looked like it might happen. They allowed him to try out driving a lorry. Until one day, without any warning, they decided unilaterally that he was not up to the task.
Without giving him notice, the company agreed to let him go. Omar only found out about the outcome of their private meeting when a P45 form arrived in his mailbox. After 10 years of working for the company, all he got was silence.
The way in which Omar was dismissed was cold and calculated. But it was also highly irregular. According to the ACAS code of practice, dismissal is not a quick decision left at the whim of employers, but a consultative process where workers must be listened to, provided with options, allowed to appeal, and only if all avenues have been exhausted, given written notice. Omar did not know every detail. But he knew instinctively that it was wrong. This is what he set out to understand, when he contacted our advisers at the Work Rights Centre.
The first thing we did was refer Oman to an employment solicitor who could provide him with legal advice. As we all suspected, the solicitor confirmed that employer should have tried harder to find him a new role. Armed with this knowledge and determined to take his battle further, Omar then returned to us. Our team started by contacting ACAS and seeking guidance for mediation. The employer was unresponsive. Despite our letters, they refused to provide Omar with compensation, and maintained the same opaque attitude they had when they dismissed them. Thus, Omar decided to go further. We assisted him in launching a claim to the Employment Tribunal. The respondent’s solicitors came forward with a compensation, and Omar accepted it. The decision acknowledged Omar’s rights to financial compensation for his abrupt, non-consultative dismissal. Our team also went one step further, helping Omar register his disability, with a view to provide him with a level of security in the long term.
Ever since August 2019 when he was let go from his job, Omar has been working on a self-employed basis, driving his own car as a minicab. He is pleased with the decision of the Employment Tribunal and is patiently waiting for his medical assessments. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, working as a driver is unpredictable, risky, and sometimes hours pass by without any customers approaching his car. He is also anxiously awaiting an appointment for a GP check and further assessments, to see whether this disability is ‘recognised’. This is never easy. Our case workers have repeatedly witnessed the reductive nature of tickbox-style disability assessments in the past where, as one of our colleagues put it, ‘If they see you can eat, get dressed, wash yourself, and you can go shopping, talk to others, you get nothing.’ We, and Omar, are all too aware of the danger that assessments don’t consider the limitations and pain experienced when completing these mundane tasks. Despite him managing some of these activities now, Omar’s condition is due to worsen as he ages.
But life, and strife, carry on. Despite knowing the challenges likely to arise, our advisors guided Omar through the form. We do what we can, and do it with dignity. As in every case, we hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We encourage Omar not to lose hope, while also supporting him to start a new, more comfortable line of work that won’t aggravate his health problem. It is not the end of his worries, and we cannot know if his company will adopt similar practices in the future. But it is a start - a step that shows that justice and change are possible with personal determination, and a little help from the team.← Case Studies