Curry factory worker told he didn’t understand recipes because he was white was discriminated against, tribunal finds

Judge rules production operative was harassed on the grounds of his race after being told to ‘go and work for an English company’

A worker at an Asian food manufacturer was discriminated against and harassed on grounds of race after being told he didn’t understand the recipes because he was white, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Mr Colin Sorby, who worked as a production operative on a zero-hours contract with Bradford Management Services at Mumtaz Foods, was also told by his supervisor, Mr Azeem Akhtar, to “go and work for an English company”, the tribunal heard.

The court heard that, on 16 October 2019, Akhtar pulled Sorby to one side and stated that “this [is] an Asian company” and that Sorby should go and work for an English company. The ruling did not give the context of the comment, but it led Sorby to contact the firm’s HR department the same day to report the remark, indicating, Judge Smith said, that he “regarded the comment as unwanted and impacting upon his dignity”.

During the tribunal hearing, Akhtar claimed the comment had been a misunderstanding because of language difficulties, but the court ruled he could “clearly express himself in English”.

On 1 November, Sorby was called to a meeting with HR representative Mr Paulo Silva, where there was a discussion about his performance. The court accepted Sorby’s evidence that there had been a productivity issue but that it was caused by an issue with a faulty machine that he had reported. A note was made that his attendance was “not exemplar” but did not go further, and no mention was made about his complaint.

Before that meeting, there had never been any issues raised regarding Sorby’s attendance or performance, and he had “never been subjected to any form of attendance or performance management policy or proceedings”.

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Following this meeting, on 5 November Sorby was informed that he was being “placed on call” – which the tribunal described as a “euphemism for being dismissed” – and that he would not be offered any more work because of his ostensibly poor attendance and performance.

Silva explained the decision to Sorby by stating that he was English and not Asian and therefore “didn’t know the cuisine and didn’t know how to cook food properly”, but there had been no mention of any such incapability at the meeting on 1 November.

When Sorby pressed where these allegations had come from, Silva told him they came from Akhtar and that it was “not his decision but he’d been told to do it by higher management”, which the tribunal accepted.

On 12 November Sorby raised a grievance, asserting that the allegations had only been made after he complained of a racist remark, that he had been given no notice of the meeting on 5 November, and that he had been warned by a colleague before the meeting that “the problem was was that he was English and not Asian, and it would be best if he kept his head down”.

As part of this grievance Sorby claimed he was subjected to direct discrimination and that his treatment was racially motivated.

On 25 November, a letter was sent to Sorby inviting him to a meeting on 28 November, stating: “We are inviting you to attend an investigatory (gross misconduct) meeting. This meeting has been arranged because we are in the process of investigating allegations that have been made relating to your conduct in the workplace.” He was not given any details of those investigations and no reference was made to his grievance.

At this point Sorby specifically stated that he considered he was being victimised and had suffered detriment as a result of raising a grievance.

The firm’s management claimed they had sent a further letter outlining the future date of an investigatory meeting and which purported to acknowledge Sorby’s grievance; however, the court ruled that no such letter existed and was “an invention”.

Smith ruled that “the motivation for inviting the claimant to an investigatory meeting to address unspecified gross misconduct was in reality to seek to persuade [him] to withdraw his grievance, which contained serious allegations of race discrimination”.

Smith found that Akhtar “considered a white person should not be working for an Asian company”, and that the fact Sorby had lodged a complaint against Akhtar following the events of 16 October also played a part in his dismissal.

The tribunal ruled that Sorby had been subjected to harassment and direct discrimination on the grounds of his race and victimised for undertaking a protected act. The case will now go to a remedy hearing.

Andrew Willis, head of legal at Croner, said the case demonstrated that everybody is protected from racist language and behaviour under employment law, regardless of their own background: “Management must be aware of what is acceptable conduct in the workplace and, crucially, how to respond when an employee does raise a complaint of racism.

“If an individual in this situation feels their treatment has worsened as a result of their complaint, the company could be liable to costly claims of victimisation alongside harassment.” 

A spokesperson for Bradford Management Services told People Management the firm operated a strict anti-discrimination policy. “We have no tolerance for discrimination of any kind and any breach of the company policy would lead to immediate disciplinary action,” they said.

“Further to the recent findings by the employment tribunal, we are investing in more frequent training on equality and diversity for all of our staff and promoting further cohesion between different cultural backgrounds.”

Sorby previously told the Metro: “I’m overjoyed with the decision – it’s taken a long time to go through the whole process. It was deplorable [the way I was treated]. As soon as I had made the complaint I was made to feel ostracised by Mr Akhtar and my allegations weren’t taken seriously.