Government urged to close loophole that let firm 'discriminate against Fleetwood woman because of her gender' - and get away with it

The Government has been urged to close a loophole that let an overseas firm discriminate against a Fleetwood woman and get away with it.

Tuesday, 21st January 2020, 5:00 pm

Judges ruled that Sophia Walker was the victim of gender discrimination after she was refused an interview for a job on a cargo ship because she's a woman, but the legal loophole meant the firm escaped punishment.

A senior judge said Wallem Shipmanagement's "conduct had been reprehensible" when former Fleetwood Nautical College student Sophia was told only men were being recruited, but said an Employment Appeal Tribunal was powerless to act because the job was on a foreign vessel sailing outside UK waters.

The court had no jurisdiction over the case - even though the discrimination took place in the UK - because of the way two pieces of equality legislation had been worded.

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A legal loophole meant an overseas firm - recruiting in Fleetwood - could discriminate against student Sophia Walker, judges ruled
A legal loophole meant an overseas firm - recruiting in Fleetwood - could discriminate against student Sophia Walker, judges ruled

The honourable Mr Justice Kerr said current regulations "surprisingly permit an offshore employment service provider to discriminate on UK soil", and said the Government should now look at changing them.

Fleetwood's Labour MP Cat Smith said: "Sadly, this case doesn't surprise me. Shoddy employment rights is sadly prevalent for seafarers and this needs addressing in terms of gender discrimination, application of the national minimum wage, and a lot more."

Currently, only those working on ships within British waters, those working on foreign ships that ordinarily work in the UK, and those working on UK-registered ships are entitled to the minimum wage.

But that could soon change, according to a Government response to Ms Smith, who asked for an update on "plans to bring forward legislative proposals to extend the application and enforcement" of the minimum wage for seafarers.

Nusrat Ghani MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, said draft changes to the law are due to go before Parliament next month.

Jacqui Hunt from the charity Equality Now, which campaigns for gender equality, said the ruling against Ms Walker "indicates that the UK has not aligned its regulations to ban discrimination against women in this context".

She said: "By doing so, it has failed to provide protection and resource to the woman in this case as well as all others who find themselves in similar circumstances.

"Nobody should face any form of discrimination in the workplace or when seeking employment, and the UK government must work to ensure that there are robust legal protections in place for all."

The controversy dates back to 2016, when Ms Walker, who had recently graduated from the nautical college, was invited back alongside 10 male graduates for job interviews.

But the tribunal was told a representative of the Hong Kong-based Wallem, Brian Phipps, who has since been sacked, sent an email to a college tutor saying Ms Walker would not be offered a job because of her gender – and suggested she would be better off working on a cruise ship.

The email said "girls have a place and a chance to succeed" before saying: "I would support the cruise industry is the most appropriate."

In 2016, Ms Walker, then 24, said: "Not even getting the interview is blatant gender discrimination and clearly shows that even in the 21st century this kind of thing is still happening in male dominated industries.”

Wallem insisted at the time it does not discriminate against women, saying it employs more than 50 female staff in various roles and was only guilty of a poorly-worded email which did not explain the situation fully.

Ms Walker sued, with a tribunal accepting an argument from Wallem's lawyer that, despite admitting Mr Phipp's email was an act of discrimination, the tribunal had no power to hear the case since the firm was based outside the UK, as was the ship.

After losing the case, Ms Walker appealed, with Mr Justice Kerr last week ruling the initial panel had acted correctly. He dismissed the appeal but added: "We do so with some misgivings.

"The respondent’s conduct has been reprehensible, but (we) are powerless to right the injustice done to the claimant.”

He said it was an “uncomfortable but inescapable proposition” that the law allows “an offshore employment service provider to discriminate, on UK soil”.

A regular review of one of the relevant pieces of legislation is due by next summer and the judge said the secretary of state “would be wise” to revisit the scope of the law.

Blackpool and the Fylde College declined to comment, other than to confirm it had no “Wallem cadets on programme” and had “no dealings” with the global firm.

In a statement, the Government Equalities Office said it could not comment “on the legal merits of individual cases and judgements” but vowed to “carefully consider” the judge’s recommendation.

Wallem Shipmanagement, which said on its website it is a “place of diversity, respect and teamwork”, was approached for a comment on the matter.