Trade unions call on council to focus on equality amid ‘culture of fear’ allegations

Trade union demonstrators on the steps of Hackney Town Hall, March 2019. Photograph: UNISON/Unite/GMB.

Hackney’s trade unions have made calls for a greater focus on equality from the Town Hall, as allegations concerning a “culture of fear” within the council’s call centre continue to swirl around.

Unite, UNISON and the GMB have joined forces to present the initial findings of their own investigation into workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination within Hackney Council, following their withdrawal from an independent probe into the issue in February.

The 17 April submission makes a number of recommendations to the Town Hall, including calls for greater protection for agency workers, for the council to begin keeping track of protected characteristics in relation to workplace grievances, and for a sub-committee focusing on equality to be re-established.

Summing up their submission, the unions said jointly: “It is disappointing to all that the trade unions were forced to withdraw their support
for the independent investigation. However, what is clear is that issues
highlighted back in 1996 ring true some 23 years later.

“The initial findings of the union investigation demonstrate that staff do not have confidence in the grievance process. There remains a perception that managers are treated differently to staff.

“Without the council allowing an objective mechanism for reviewing
complaints made by staff against managers (seeking to address the genuine
concern of prejudice in managers investigating managers) staff and
managers are unable to have faith in the council’s processes.”

The unions added that they welcomed the recent announcements of diversity training to be rolled out for council managers and of a new ‘inclusive leadership programme’, but said that these steps “do not go far enough”.

The initial findings to be presented to the Town Hall’s scrutiny panel include allegations of “a culture of fear”, with staff too scared to speak out lest they risk immediate termination and union members claiming to have witnessed summary terminations and staff members being escorted off the premises in the council’s call centre.

Management at the call centre has been under investigation following the publication of an 18-page document in November containing startling allegations of a culture of discriminatory abuse within the department.

The unions also highlight a high use of agency staff contributing to a vulnerability to bullying and harassment, highlighting reports from former staff that grievances have not been investigated further by either agency or council.

Claims are made in the documents of temporary contracts being terminated when complaints are made, with UNISON, Unite and the GMB arguing that this amounts to an effective “blacklisting” of staff members given the council’s policy not to re-hire members of staff who have been fired.

According to the submission, 835 agency workers were used by the council in the first quarter of 2018/19, which do not show up in the Town Hall’s workplace profile.

The unions have stated that the “overwhelming indication” is that the majority of the workers supplied by agencies are black, and call for the council’s workplace profile to be updated accordingly.

Reports are due to be submitted to the scrutiny panel of agency worker discontent at being unsuccessful in applying for permanent versions of their roles, in some cases for years, as well as claims of direct and indirect racism, verbal harassment and bullying by staff with “little or no action taken by management”.

The joint union submission added: “The council’s corporate equality workshops, its local government peer review and the testimony of union members and the wider workforce show that there is a genuine perception that visibly ethnic minority staff are more likely to face disciplinary action and or redundancy.

“Ultimately there is a perception that the council are gentrifying its workforce and as a result visibly ethnic staff are being marginalised in place of younger white staff.”

An equality peer review of the London Borough of Hackney by the Local Government Association (LGA) in April 2018 states: “There is still a visible gap of black and ethnic minority staff at senior levels despite the fact that they are over represented in the workforce more generally. [The LGA] were not told of any positive actions being taken to tackle this issue yet.”

The campaign to raise awareness of bullying and discrimination within the council centred around former Hackney Council employee and Unite branch equalities officer Natasha Johnson, who has had her own claims of harassment and discrimination dismissed at an employment tribunal.

Hackney Council’s chief executive Tim Shields said: “We strongly refute the unions’ claims. Hackney Council is an organisation where bullying, harassment and discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated and we have clear policies on bullying and harassment. The trade unions were actively involved in reviewing these policies, how they were written and shared with staff.

“Another report, to be discussed at the same Scrutiny Panel meeting, provides an overview of the extensive work we are undertaking around equalities. As an employer, we understand the importance of recruiting a more diverse workforce, at every level, and alongside that, the importance of making sure that every manager in the Council has the knowledge and skills they need to be inclusive leaders.

“We are committed to improving this. We’ve been updating staff on how they can help to shape this work and we welcome any recommendations the Scrutiny Panel wish to make following their meeting.

“Despite the unions choosing to withdraw from the independent investigation – for which they agreed the terms of reference and investigator – this is ongoing and will report back soon, at which point we will share the findings.

“There are plenty of opportunities for the unions to influence all of this work and ensure their members’ voices are heard, should they wish to engage.”

Shields had previously  characterised the unions’ claims of daily intimidation of staff as “unacceptable,” and claimed that details of the allegations had failed to be provided for council investigations.

The Unite, UNISON and GMB investigation, which was based on interviews with union stewards, witness testimony and surveys of the membership and the wider workforce, is expected to deliver its full findings at the end of April.

EDIT: This article was updated at 16:19 on 24/04/2019 to include an updated statement from Hackney Council Chief Executive Tim Shields.

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