Judges 'powerless to fight injustice' after Fleetwood student is 'denied job interview because she's a woman'

A female deck officer was the victim of sex discrimination after being denied an interview for a job on a cargo ship because she was a woman – but a legal loophole meant the firm escaped punishment.

Monday, 20th January 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Monday, 20th January 2020, 9:08 pm

A senior judge said Wallem Shipmanagement’s “conduct had been reprehensible” when former Fleetwood Nautical College student Sophia Walker was told the firm only recruited men to work on its client's ship.

But the honourable Mr Justice Kerr said the Employment Appeal Tribunal was powerless to act when it heard the case in London, as the job was on a foreign vessel sailing outside UK waters.

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

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Sophia Walker, who launched legal action against Hong Kong-based Wallem Shipmanagement after she said she was denied a job interview because she's a woman
Sophia Walker, who launched legal action against Hong Kong-based Wallem Shipmanagement after she said she was denied a job interview because she's a woman

Wallem admitted discriminating against the complainant and an earlier tribunal said it would have awarded her £9,000 in compensation.

However it went on to say it 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.

Agreeing with the earlier verdict, the appeal panel, led by Mr Justice Kerr, said current regulations “surprisingly permit an offshore employment service provider to discriminate on UK soil”.

However, he added that the UK had the power to close the loophole and urged the Government to do so.

In 2016, Ms Walker, who qualified as a deck officer after completing courses at the college, spoke out after being invited back to the campus along with fellow male graduates for a job interview.

Then 24, she said she never got a chance to speak to a representative from Wallem, which offers ship management services to cargo ship operators, because of her gender.

In one email to a college tutor, seen by The Gazette, Mr Phipps said the firm “will not offer places to the female cadets because we can’t offer the appropriate onboard environment to make it work”.

He added that “girls have a place and a chance to succeed” before saying: “I would suppose the cruise industry is the most appropriate.”

Wallem insisted 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 said at the time: “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.”

The tribunal accepted 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.

Mr Justice Kerr said the initial panel had acted correctly and 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.