Hackney Council bullying and racism row: No councillors turn up to union meeting ahead of investigation

The union meeting at The Star of Hackney Downs.

The union meeting at The Star of Hackney Downs. - Credit: Archant

Not one councillor turned up to a public meeting held by unions accusing the town hall of having a culture of bullying, racism and harassment.

Natasha Johnson.

Natasha Johnson. - Credit: Archant

Unite, GMB and Unison invited all Labour’s representatives to the public event at the Star of Hackney Downs the week before Christmas.

They hoped some would turn up and hear the stories of victims, who had been invited to come forward and share their experiences ahead of a independent investigation into the allegations.

Unite rep Onay Kasab told the Gazette: “No one came, although we did get some apologies from councillors wishing us luck and had a message from Meg Hillier.

“We need to be involving the politicians, this is not something that can just be left at the door of the council officers.”

The allegations, first revealed by the Gazette in November, were detailed in an explosive 18-page letter sent to all councillors.

They include:

• Workers’ complaints about discrimination being swept under the carpet, or resulting in them being punished for speaking out through “counter allegations”;

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• A black female worker being called a member of the Taliban by a white, male colleague, who also said he would “start embracing his roots because he was white and whites used to enslave black people”;

• A manager disclosing, in front of another manager, that a black female agency worker had been a victim of domestic abuse, shouting at her: “Your partner is always pulling your hair out and you’re a walking car crash,” and: “There is always drama with you”;

• A senior white male manager making “well-known racist stereotypical comments to black staff”.

At the centre of it is Natasha Johnson, a Unite rep who was sacked in October after an 11-month suspension.

Her dismissal came in the middle of an employment tribunal in which she has accused the council of racist, sexist and disability discrimination. The outcome of the tribunal has still not been decided.

Onay said the unions had been given a boost ahead of the investigation, after the council agreed to allow ex-staff members to give evidence.

“That’s fantastic,” he said. “They will be a lot freer to talk. The most important thing now is to give as many people as possible the confidence to come forward at that inquiry.”

One former employee Jabez Lam, 63, is also taking the council to an employment tribunal.

He said that Natasha’s case was not an isolated incident and that he was pushed out after complaining about a manager who “wished him dead” in a conversation with a colleague.

Jabez showed the Gazette a 2016 letter to him from director of housing services Michael Scorer acknowledging what had been said.

In it, Mr Scorer said: “[The manager] acknowledges she may have made a comment along the lines of a ‘death wish’, which she says would have been intended as an off-the-cuff and meaningless expression of frustration.

“As such, it is not necessary to deal with this matter a formal grievance.”

Onay said Unite had not heard from Phil Glanville, but in a statement the Hackney mayor said: “All forms of bullying, harassment and racism are unacceptable and, if such behaviours are found to be happening in the workplace at the council, they will not be tolerated and action will be taken in line with the council’s policies.

“I have been assured that this is what is happening and will continue.

“The council has made very clear to all employees that they should come forward and report harassment, and will be safe from reprisals if they do – this message was sent to all staff by the chief executive [Tim Shields] last month.

“We have appointed an independent person to investigate alleged issues and the unions have agreed to the terms of reference for the investigation.

“This work has just started and the report will be published next year.”