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The long running bitter dispute between the management and the staff of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has spilled over into a wave of strikes which will run until the day after polling day.
Rolling strikes began in Glasgow this week and will continue in London, Cardiff and Manchester following the sacking of many disabled and black and ethnic minority staff – some by email. One of the worst cases involved 57 year old Markus Caruana, a disabled former flute player in the Corps of Drums with the Grenadier Guards.
Markus Caruana was unfortunate enough to have been both at the Guildford pub bombings in 1974 and the Chelsea Barracks bombing in 1981 which seriously injured regimental bandsmen from the Irish Guards. He was fortunate enough to escape unscathed but later had a serious disability. He lost his 75 per cent of his hearing and got an incurable muscle wasting disease called Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) which affects the nervous system that supports muscles, often weakening the legs and feet.
So ferocious has the sacking policy been that there are now vacancies at the ECHR even though it has suffered enormous cuts since 2010. But the management have banned any of the sacked staff from applying for a job.
According to the PCS Union The Commission’s expenditure report for April shows it has spent £90,876 on agency staff in April and £17,900 on recruitment costs. The spending on agency staff is a significant increase on previous months – £44,000 in January, £61,000 in February and £65,000 in March.
A Commission spokesperson, said: “We have greatly reduced our spend on contractors in recent years. Contractors are, however, used when we need certain technical skills and experience that are not available in the Commission. The recent increase has been due to one off costs and no long term rise in spending.”
Of the eight union members issued notices of compulsory redundancy, six are black or minority ethnic, five are disabled and seven are older workers. Four are union reps and one was a lead negotiator opposing the cuts. We are now pursuing legal action against the EHRC for victimisation of trade union representatives.
The management issued a defiant statement on the existing strike action.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC Chief Executive said: “The changes we are making will allow us to respond to the new challenges we face. I am proud of how well our staff have embraced this new way of working and our ambitious programme of work.
“We have made every attempt to end this dispute with the union and have offered them concessions at every stage of talks. We are now focused on delivering our business plan. We are unclear as to their rationale for continuing action.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Our members only take strike action as a last resort but management’s reluctance to adequately address their concerns have given them no choice.
“There are vacancies at the Commission and there is no reason why our members can’t have those jobs.
“The fact that the government has cut the Commission to a quarter of its original size demonstrates the Tories’ lack of commitment to equality and human rights issues.
“Further budget and staff cuts would leave the commission toothless at a time when more needs to be done to tackle hate crime and discrimination.”
What is extraordinary about this whole situation is that the issues that the ECHR is supposed to represent – employment rights, equal pay, the rights of the disabled and unfair discrimination against black and ethnic minority and gay workers – are all being undermined by their own attitudes to their staff.
If there are to be tribunal hearings – it will mean the reputation of the organisation will be damaged- and all these causes will suffer. This does not look like going away.