Quaker headquarters under pressure over treatment of junior staff

By staff writers
January 15, 2015

Quakers in Britain have become embroiled in a controversy over the treatment of hospitality workers at their national headquarters in central London. Three workers claim that they were effectively sacked because of they spoke up for their principles at work, an allegation strongly denied by the organisation's leadership.

Friends House, the Quakers' head office and conference centre in Euston Road, London, employs over 100 people. The Quakers are keen to emphasise that all staff receive above the recognised London Living Wage and that union membership is encouraged.

The controversy blew up when Friends House recently brought an end to its much criticised zero-hours contracts for its cafe and restaurant staff, replacing them with a smaller number of fixed-hours contracts. Rather than simply offering fixed hours to all workers on zero-hour contracts, such workers were expected to re-apply for jobs.

Three former employees, who had campaigned against zero hours, allege that making the change in this way allowed management to exclude workers known for their union activity and radical views. They have held two peaceful protests outside the building in recent weeks.

The most senior staff member of British Quakers – Paul Parker, the Recording Clerk – has denied the allegations (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21289).

Two of the three, Anna Jemiolek and Martin Nickolay-Blake served as union representatives at Friends House for Unite, as well as being members of the Industrial Workers of the World, an anarcho-syndicalist trade union. The third, Georgia Coles-Riley, has been described as “a principled Quaker”.

Supporters of the three ex-workers say that they were all known for speaking up for their principles at work. Nickolay-Blake has long been suspected of being the author of an anonymous article in Young Quaker magazine in 2013 that criticised employment practices at Friends House.

In summer 2014, Anna Jemiolek was suspended on full pay during a disciplinary investigation. She says this followed a meeting with two male senior managers in which she was told she was being suspended for her own good. The process concluded with the decision that Jemiolek could not continue to work for Friends House.

The other two say that they were told in September that there would be no work for them until at least December. Nickolay-Blake described this as “nonsense”, saying “hospitality staff are overworked and have insufficient cover”.

He said that less than two weeks later, they received advertisements for new roles to cover the jobs previously carried out by the three of them.

According to Friends House, this was simply about replacing zero-hours contracts with fixed-hours contracts. A spokesperson for Quakers in Britain said, “Colleagues holding zero-hours contracts were invited to apply for these; some chose not to apply, whilst others have applied and have been appointed.”

Nickolay-Blake told Ekklesia, “We refused to apply, both on the grounds that we should not have to apply for our own jobs, and that we were not willing to be divided by being forced to compete with each other over work.”

For many Quakers, the controversy dates back to the time when the Quaker leadership set up Friends House Hospitality, a wholly owned subsidiary company that runs the building's cafe, restaurant and similar functions. Critics allege that it is managed by people with little understanding of Quakerism. Some say they treat staff relatively well, compared to most private sector employers, but that this is far removed form the principles of a radical religious society.

In response to an enquiry from Ekklesia last week, a spokesperson for Quakers in Britain, said, “We feel it would be inappropriate to comment on individual cases. However, there is no basis for the claim that the disciplinary procedure was related to union activity.”

On Monday (12 January 2015), when the former employees staged their second demonstration outside Friends House, the organisation shifted from its refusal to comment on individual cases. Paul Parker, Quaker Recording Clerk, insisted that the organisation had “sought to treat its current and former employees fairly, compassionately and with the dignity which it believes each human being is entitled to expect”.

He said that the suspension of the staff member last summer was unrelated to union activity but concerned “working relationships” with other staff. He said that Friends House paid her while suspended, although they were under no obligation to do so.

In contrast, her supporters claim that she was intimidated by management. One current member of Friends House staff, who did not wish to be named, said that there was a lot of sympathy for her within the building.

Paul Parker added, “We are saddened that some individuals not connected with this organisation, nor with the Unite union, are distributing inaccurate and unattributed information about a management decision arrived at after proper notice and full consultation.” This appears to be a reference to the Industrial Workers of the World, whose London branch is backing the three ex-employees of Friends House.

While only one of the three is a Quaker, the other two emphasise that they are not criticising Quakers as a whole but the management of Friends House and of Friends House Hospitality in particular.


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