Yemeni refugee employed by Strathclyde University loses race discrimination action in Employment Tribunal

A computer engineering specialist who alleged that his Scottish university employer had discriminated against him on grounds of race has lost his case before the Employment Tribunal.

Dr Shawki Al-Dubaee was employed on a fixed-term contract by the University of Strathclyde from February 2019 to February 2021, and continued employment with the respondent on another contract thereafter. I have claimed that the respondent was in breach of section 13 of the Equality Act 2010 for direct discrimination based on his Arab ethnicity.

The case was considered by Employment Judge Mark Whitcombe along with Tribunal members F Paton and J Whistler. Mr A Argue, solicitor, appeared for the claimant and Mr C McDowall, solicitor, for the respondent.

personal attack

The claimant, who had come to the UK as a refugee from Yemen, had been employed as a Partnership Development Lead within the digital team of one of the respondent’s research centres, funded by an EU Manufacturing Industry Digital Innovation Hubs (MIDIH) project. It was the claimant’s position that, from September 2019 onwards, he had been deliberately isolated from team meetings and blocked from carrying out his remit, with tasks central to that remit being assigned to other team members.

It was further alleged by the claimant that an email he received from a colleague, Mr Millar, in October 2019, which was highly critical of his work and had other staff members copied in, was a personal attack upon him which had been made public. He also raised an incident in which he was accused of having plagiarized the work of another colleague in a probation review meeting in December 2019, both of which he argued were less favorable treatment than that which a hypothetical comparator would have received.

The claimant made internal complaints concerning his treatment to the respondent’s HR department. He alleged that they had not properly investigated or dealt with his complaint from him, and that an appeal against the decision was not dealt with fairly. Finally, he alleged that the failure to renew his contract at the end of the fixed term period, while other staff members hired at the same time as him did, constituted less favorable treatment because of race.

The respondent submitted that it was known and clear from the beginning of the contract that the grant funding would expire in 2021 with no option for extension. While it was true that colleagues of the claimant had their contracts renewed, they were employed on different grants that had been extended by their funders. While there had been friction between the claimant and other team members, no negative treatment resulted from his ethnicity.

main focus

In its decision, the Tribunal observed: “[The claimant’s role] was funded by EU funds and it was necessary to ensure that the claimant devoted the overwhelming majority of his time to the MIDIH project, otherwise the respondent would not be able to draw down those funds. The claimant was allowed to become involved in a project which was funded from a different source, but predominantly it was necessary for him to focus on the role for which he had been recruited. This is a non-racial reason for requiring the claimant to focus primarily on the MIDIH project and to limit his involvement with other projects.”

Addressing the content of the emails criticizing his conduct, it said: “We have no doubt that this matter could have been handled more delicately by Mr Millar, or that the claimant was embarrassed by his treatment. It constituted a detriment in that the claimant might reasonably regard it as putting him at a disadvantage.”

However, it went on to say: “We accept Mr. Millar’s explanation. First, the email was sent on his first day back at work after a period of bereavement leave. He felt under pressure. He also felt a need to act quickly to prevent the team from becoming involved in unnecessary work at the claimant’s request. Those are the reasons why he replied to all making the comments that he did, they have nothing to do with race and a hypothetical non-Arab comparator who had sent an equivalent email to that sent by the claimant would have received treatment which was no more favourable.”

On the accusation of plagiarism, it added: “Plagiarism was a potentially serious issue, especially in an academic environment. That was a non-racial reason for raising it with the claimant during the probation review meeting. Mr Millar had genuine concerns about plagiarism based on [his] observation of the claimant’s presentation. The mere fact that there was no formal plagiarism investigation does not cause us to doubt the genuineness of [the] reason for raising it with the claimant in the context of a probation review meeting. In our assessment it had nothing to do with race and everything to do with its seriousness.”

The Tribunal concluded: “If the funding for the claimant’s post had been extended or replaced by substitute funding from another source then the failure to renew the claimant’s fixed term contract might call for an explanation. However, those were not the facts. The funding came to an end and so the claimant went through a redeployment process. He was successful in that process and found another job with the respondent.”

The claim was therefore dismissed.

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