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Hospital staff told to 'check your bags' after Black midwife finished last shift

Midwife Olukemi Akinmeji was wrongly portrayed as a thief on her last day at William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent, a tribunal heard.

An ambulance passes a sign welcoming people to The William Harvey Hospital, where a temporary field hospital, a Nightingale 'surge hub', is being constructed, in Ashford, in south-east England on January 2, 2022, as fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, daily cases of Covid-19 have ballooned. - England is building temporary hospitals to help cope with rising coronavirus cases. The new
Midwife Olukemi Akinmeji was discriminated against while working at William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent, a tribunal found. (AFP via Getty Images)

Hospital staff were told to "check your bags" on a Black midwife's last day at work, an employment tribunal has heard.

Olukemi Akinmeji, who worked as a midwife at William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent, has successfully sued East Kent Hospitals University NHS Trust for discrimination and victimisation.

The tribunal in Ashford was told she was faced with a "toxic" work environment and that her colleagues "ganged up" on her.

In a leaving speech on Ms Akinmeji's final day, shift co-ordinator Kathy Carr told gathered staff: "It's Kemi's last day, everyone check your bags."

The tribunal heard how Carr then repeated this in the hallway. She had previously put up a poster in a changing room in response to actual thefts.

Carr claimed the comment was "light-hearted" but Ms Akinmeji said: "I do not see what was funny in being portrayed as a thief in front of my colleagues, patients and family members."

Ms Akinmeji told the tribunal she was mistreated at work because she is Black.

She started working at the hospital in March 2018 and handed in her notice on 9 December 2019.

On her last day, 25 January 2020, hospital staff were told by Carr to "check your bags".

The tribunal heard that Carr realised this "wasn't appropriate in front of colleagues" and it was a "joke in bad taste".

Carr said she was "embarrassed" as she had only just found out Ms Akinmeji was leaving and wanted to say something "light-hearted".

Carr said the "trigger" for her comment was a poster in the changing room she had put up in response to actual thefts.

In an exit statement to her employers, Ms Akinmeji submitted a complaint about the incident.

“If the trust have zero tolerance to racism then it should act appropriately," she said.

“My complaint against Kathy Carr is however a formal complaint because she never was a friend nor joked with me.

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A view of the site at the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent, as preparations are made to construct a Nightingale 'surge hub'. Picture date: Thursday December 30, 2021. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
Olukemi Akinmeji worked as a midwife at William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent. (PA Images via Getty Images)

“Yes, I have had a few sarcastic remarks from her but I do not see what was funny in being portrayed as a thief in front of my colleagues, patients and family members.

“Even if I overlook everything else, I do not intend to overlook being embarrassed so [publicly] with a false and baseless spiteful remark. The fact that Carr acts freely in such a manner goes without saying how she treats ethnic minorities."

In a response, the trust said: “Kathy has since attended unconscious bias training – as a result, she has again reflected on her comment and realises how inappropriate it was and insensitive to make such a comment, particularly in front of colleagues and she is sorry for this.

“She has stated she will not do so again, and is now very much aware of the expectation of management in relation to her behaviour and the consequences.“

However, the tribunal heard that Carr had not attended the training course.

The panel concluded that Ms Akinmeji was working in a "toxic and difficult" environment in which she and her colleagues were shouted at and sworn at.

Although it dismissed many of her racism claims, the tribunal concluded she had been discriminated against by the bags remark.

Employment judge Anna Corrigan said: "The evidence shows that [Ms Akinmeji] was a subject of discussion by the group of midwives concerned, which had generated a shared negative attitude towards [her] and some hostility which she picked up on in their behaviour towards her.

“We find they thereby 'ganged up' against [her] and this suggests there was bullying of [her] by this group of midwives.“

Regarding the bags comment, she said: “This was an extremely offensive comment in the context of a Black colleague leaving the workplace and the knowledge that there had been actual thefts from staff.

“The implication is clearly that colleagues should take care of their things as [Ms Akinmeji] might be going to steal from colleagues on her last day."