World News

Woman Says She Was Bullied, Bound and Gagged at Work in Scotland

Posted May 25, 2018 12:06 a.m. EDT

LONDON — In the photograph, the woman, wearing a blue jumpsuit, is strapped to a green chair with tape wrapped around her legs, arms, torso and mouth.

The picture was taken in 2010, and the episode was a warning, according to the woman in the chair, DeeAnn Fitzpatrick, after she complained about what she said was a toxic atmosphere of bullying and harassment by co-workers at a fisheries office on the north coast of Scotland.

“I was taped to a chair by two of my colleagues and told, ‘This is what happens when you speak out against the boys,'” she told a judge in 2017.

Fitzpatrick, now 49, took the government of Scotland to court that year, accusing co-workers of waging a campaign of harassment in the Scrabster office of Marine Scotland, a government fisheries watchdog, on the Caithness coast.

Now, after the preliminary hearing, and after years of trying to draw attention to her case, she will appear before an employment tribunal June 13-14, her lawyer, Michael Briggs of Thompsons Solicitors Scotland, said Thursday. There, she will seek a judgment against the government office and unspecified compensation.

Her case vaulted onto the global stage this week, after the BBC published the picture online. The case has reignited an intense debate about gender dynamics in the workplace amid a discourse on issues like pay equity, harassment and sexual assault. In Scotland, where about half of the Cabinet ministers are women and the country’s first minister is a woman, the photograph drew swift condemnation from social media users to members of the nation’s highest office.

A former co-worker accused of taking part in the episode told the BBC that the accusations were false, that he didn’t remember the events and that if anything had happened it “would have been office banter.” He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Fitzpatrick was not available for comment; under Scottish law, she is prohibited from speaking publicly while her case is under consideration. A fisheries compliance officer who is originally from Canada, she has lived in Scotland for more than 20 years, Briggs said.

But she laid out her case in stark terms at the preliminary hearing in 2017 at the Aberdeen Tribunal Hearing Center to establish whether her claim can proceed.

She said she had been mocked for a miscarriage and had endured sexist language, in addition to hearing colleagues use racist slurs against others.

Fitzpatrick told the court that she had received Valentine’s Day cards from someone at work in which she was called a troll and told, “We miss you not.” Marine Scotland didn’t want “a woman, especially a foreign woman,” working there, she said she was told; and she said she had witnessed threatening behavior toward female staff members, who were sometimes referred to as prostitutes, according to the BBC.

Because of the statute of limitations, however, neither the picture nor other evidence from years past will be submitted to the tribunal in June, her lawyer said. When the judge in the case, Nick Hosie, gave the claims against Marine Scotland the green light, Briggs said, he “significantly narrowed” the scope to the last three months of 2017 because of a legal time limit on her formal complaint.

Hosie said Fitzpatrick could try to make a case for harassment as laid out in Section 26 of the United Kingdom’s Equality Act, the lawyer said, adding that the ruling did not invalidate the “hostile and degrading environment” she endured.

Emails showed that Fitzpatrick had alerted a manager about the gagging and the taping, and that there was an inquiry in 2014, according to the BBC. But her complaints were dismissed by an unidentified manager who is quoted in the emails as saying, “I am sure they meant no harm and that was the boys just being boys,” the BBC reported.

At a government meeting Thursday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was “absolutely horrified” by the picture. She said that racism and sexism had no place in government and that she had ordered a full review of the case.

Monica Lennon, a Labour Party member of the Scottish Parliament, said on Twitter: “This is not ‘office banter’ or ‘boys being boys.’ It’s abuse. Women being degraded and bullied in the workplace, or anywhere else, is vile and unacceptable but it’s too often explained away or covered up.”

Rhoda Grant, a Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said in a email that she had been fighting “for the best part of a decade” to bring attention to Fitzpatrick’s case, “but have had nothing but a brick wall from the Scottish government.” She said, “It is a shame it took a shocking photo having to be revealed before they were willing to listen and take action.”

She added, “The endemic nature of the misogyny and racism in DeeAnn’s workplace is especially personally demoralizing, both to DeeAnn, who has been living with this for so long, her work colleagues who have also been subject to abuse, but also to myself — this is 2018, and this kind of bullying should have been defeated a long time ago.”

Lynn Henderson, the Scotland officer for the Public and Commercial Services Union, said in an email: “When an employer turns a blind eye to appalling treatment of women at work, it’s not just an act of indifference. Ignoring the problem or sweeping it away is an act of complicity.”

Fitzpatrick has been on leave from the fisheries watchdog since November 2016, after her father died, according to local news media reports. If her claim is found to have merit, the judge is expected to issue his judgment, including any recommendation for compensation, said Briggs, who added, “It’ll take as long as it takes.”

In the meantime, she faces a disciplinary internal hearing by her employer. The charges: being “overzealous” in inspecting fish catches and being rude to clients. The hearing was to be held at the end of May, but since the case spilled into the open again, has been postponed until next month.