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Oxfam has been in the news this week over allegations of the sexual exploitation of people in need by their aid workers in Haiti, Chad and the UK. Staff in Haiti were demanding sex from people in exchange for food and other supplies, and in the UK young teenage volunteers were being raped by managers in some of their charity shops it was claimed.
10% of Oxfam’s staff have experienced or witnessed sexual abuse. Often, volunteers have had no criminal background checks done on them and yet these people are being left alone with, and in charge of, young children at times.
As well as the sexual misconduct scandal it seems there is also a culture of bullying that goes on within some charities. A former Oxfam employee reached out to AltNewsMedia to share her experience.
Katie Young has worked for different charities throughout her life, and prior to working for Oxfam had never witnessed any bullying in the voluntary field. The reason she applied to Oxfam was because of their reputation and because she still wanted to be working alongside like-minded people.
Katie told us: “I am a communications professional in the third sector, who has worked for numerous high profile charities in the last four years. I was hired by Oxfam in June 2017 to work at their head office. I thought I had ‘made it’ as Oxfam had such a stellar reputation across the sector and beyond. I quickly noticed, however, that there was an undercurrent of open verbal criticism. Two weeks into my role, I also noticed that I was gradually isolated from meetings by my female manager, who thought it best for me to ‘stay at my desk’, so I often missed opportunities to contribute to projects or meet new people.
“One lunchtime, while I was eating on my own, I overheard a member of HR and an unknown colleague talking about me. According to my manager, who had been talking to them, I was ‘struggling’ and wasn’t performing as well as my colleague. They then discussed what could be done, if a department were to have a similar ‘problem’ with an employee. I was surprised that HR did not talk about offering me support and that my manager’s hostility had led to open verbal criticisms with other departmental managers.
“I had my first anxiety attack in the charity toilets after that, and fell into a state of disrepair and disappointment. After that, I felt it hard to attend meetings with my manager and the team, and felt uncomfortable involving myself in out-of-hours activities or projects.”
Katie also says that she never received any safeguarding training at Oxfam either, which would be vital if she were to be able to most effectively assist people with physical disabilities and mental health problems. This safeguarding training would also have helped Katie be able to spot signs of mistreatment in vulnerable people who might be being abused by their carers. The Oxfam office very quickly became a place she dreaded going to. After only six weeks into her role at Oxfam, the hostility directed towards her within the working environment had increased to such a degree that at the end of her shift one day Katie left the office and went to Accident and Emergency with her partner. She was quickly diagnosed as experiencing severe anxiety.
Anyone who has been on the receiving end of bullying in the workplace will know only too well how traumatic this can be. You lose sleep because you dread waking up in the morning, and the day spent in a hateful environment feels incredibly long, more than the passing of 8 hours should feel. Katie approached the HR dept. the next day to inform them of her visit to the hospital and the diagnosis she had been given by the medical team – that she was experiencing high anxiety as a result of being bullied in the workplace.
“I was then told by HR, after this, that as I had no written proof, I either had to quit or continue working under her. I went to the charity’s employed counsellor, hoping she could shed light on the matter. She was quick to leap to the conclusion that, because of my anxiety and paranoia, I could have imagined the whole thing and my manager was in fact telling the truth. I felt like every outlet at the charity was closed to me and the people who were hired to support and protect its employees, was merely protecting its managerial staff. Needless to say, my resignation email quickly followed.
“I find it hard to hear charity adverts or read about appeals as they often trigger anxiety attacks and flashbacks. I feel embarrassed and let down, by an industry whose role is to help those in need, and by a charity that praised itself on its female empowerment work. I hope that story will encourage other charity professionals and volunteers to come forward and speak out against workplace bullying and harassment.”
When we think of charities we have a tendency to think, or at least suppose, that the people who work for them will behave ethically and have good morals. It’s a charity, after all, and who but the most virtuous would donate their free time and energy to help those less fortunate? It’s a sad reality that this scandal shows us that our naïve views now needs to be re-structured, monitored by a (better?) watchdog, and have tighter controls and regulations put in place.