Government pledges review after admitting it is powerless to stop foreign firms being sexist on British soil

The Government has pledged to review the law after admitting it is powerless to stop foreign firms being sexist on British soil.

Monday, 3rd February 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 4th February 2020, 10:07 am

It comes after Sophia Walker, a former student at Fleetwood Nautical College, lost a sex discrimination case after claiming she was refused an interview for a job on an overseas cargo ship because she's a woman.

Three judges said the behaviour of Hong Kong-based firm Wallem Shipmanagement had been "reprehensible" but said they were "powerless to right the injustice done" to Ms Walker because of a legal loophole.

Despite recruiting in the UK, foreign firms hiring for foreign vessels outside British waters are not covered by anti-discrimination laws.

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After being challenged by Fleetwood MP Cat Smith, who urged the Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss to "bring forward legislative proposals" to close the loophole, Minister for Women Victoria Atkins MP said: "The Department for Transport will be reviewing regulations on the treatment of seafarers and will be looking at this issue as part of the review."

She said the current law "in no way excuses companies, as recently reported, which deny British women job opportunities on ships registered or owned abroad, especially where the country in question is seeking to recruit in this country".

Ms Atkins added: "It is unacceptable to see this sort of blatant sex discrimination in 2020 if there is no genuine occupational requirement for a position to be filled by a man."

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.

Sophia Walker, whose legal battle has caught the attention of the Government
Sophia Walker, whose legal battle has caught the attention of the Government

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."

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 month 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.”

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 to review the law.

Ms Walker's lawyers were yesterday waiting to hear if the case can now been taken to the Court of Appeal. "It is crucial that this matter is clarified," she said.

Wallem Shipmanagement said: "The behavior of the individual involved was not appropriate, and Wallem greatly regrets the actions of the employee. The behavior did not and does not reflect the company values.

"Wallem has employed female seafarers since 2006, and today has more than 50 female seafarers. Wallem is well known for its diversity programs, and the incident on served to strengthen those principles. In 2018, a Wallem employee won an award for their diversity programs support.

"Since 2016 there has been a complete change of corporate leadership in the Wallem Group, and in the leadership of the ship management arm. The employees involved have not been in Wallem for some time."

Ms Smith said the case was "shocking because in any other sector that blatant discrimination would be illegal, but there is a loophole when it comes to seafarers".

The same the same loophole is being exploited by some firms to flout the minimum wage, and said some seafarers are working between the UK and the continent for "just 50p an hour; it's a scandal", Ms Smith said.

She added: "Ms Walker’s case shows that it is not just the national minimum wage which is being flouted, but our equalities laws too. Forty-five years on from the Sex Discrimination Act, I’m sure she never imagined she would fail to get an interview for a job because she is a woman.

"But it appears from the questions I have asked in Parliament that the Government is aware of this loophole but unable to challenge it. If ships are registered overseas our laws cannot apply on them, even if they sail to and from our ports and recruit from our nautical colleges, although I am pleased the Blackpool and The Fylde College have given the offending company the boot off our campus."

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