Family given £100,000 after Royal Mail staff bullied a man to death

Terri Judd
Thursday 18 July 2002 00:00
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"They have won," Jermaine Lee wrote to his mother before wrapping a belt round his neck and hanging himself.

"They" were the bullies who had made the postal worker's life a misery for years. "They" were the colleagues who harassed the young black man to death. Yesterday – in an unprecedented move – the Royal Mail conceded with "shock and regret" that a macho culture pervaded its Aston, Birmingham, sorting office and that its employees had "shamefully" contributed to Mr Lee's death.

After the largest internal investigation in the company's history, it agreed a confidential settlement with his family. The payment, believed to be just short of £100,000, is a landmark posthumous award.

Mr Lee, who was only 26 when his mother found him hanging from the rafters of his home, was not alone in being subjected to the daily torture of bullying and racism. It is, experts say, particularly prevalent in the postal service.

Since it was set up 12 months ago, 6,000 workers, – predominantly postal – have called a Communication Workers Union harassment hotline at a rate of almost one for every half-hour of the working day.

Mr Lee, a happy, popular young man, joined Royal Mail at 17 in the hope of making a career of the postal service.

His father, Steve, 48, said last night: "He was one of the kindest people you could ever hope to meet. He would always be the first person to give up his seat on the bus. All in all, he was a very well-rounded individual. He was very athletic, keen on martial arts and very disciplined. It says something about his character and popularity that, after his death, more than 100 people came forward to say Jermaine would not have committed suicide unless more things were behind it," he added.

Mr Lee had been studying a computer course at college and contemplating buying a house with his girlfriend, Rebecca Hart. But the bullying he had endured for years reached an excruciating crescendo in the later months of 1999. On one occasion, his mother Urnell explained yesterday, he was trapped in an office as one senior manager threatened him and another stood guard.

At other times, he was followed to the toilets by a female manager, who intimidated him by waiting outside. Others spoke of senior staff going out and drinking before returning to the office to abuse Mr Lee and other colleagues. Name-calling was rife.

Described as a "model worker", his conscientious adherence to health and safety rules led him to clash with senior staff. Little is known about the night of 15 November 1999. Pleas for information came to nothing, though his family remain convinced something happened on his last shift that proved to be the "last straw".

When Mrs Lee arrived at their home in Hall Green, Birmingham, the next day, she found him hanging.

"Dear Mom, I love you," he had written in a suicide note. "I always have and always will. It's time for me to go now. I never wanted to go like this but it's the only way out. These guys at work hate me. Tell them it was nice playing with them and that they have won."

Treated initially with "indifference and insensitivity" by their son's former bosses, Mr Lee's parents had to contend with an attempted cover-up by local staff before the national office offered a full inquiry.

Their first taste of what their son had endured came when Steve Lee wrote an open letter to 1,500 postmen asking for evidence surrounding his son's death. The swift response came in the form of two threatening telephone calls, in which he was called a "black bastard" and told to back off unless he wanted to end up like his son.

Mrs Lee said: "We spoke to many former colleagues and were horrified by what we heard. His colleagues told us of how Jermaine had, for many years, been targeted for harassment, threats and abuse – including racist abuse – by a group of managers. We were told of a climate of fear, bullying and racism that had existed at the Birmingham sorting office. We also heard how Jermaine's complaints had fallen on deaf ears."

While the Royal Mail did not go as far as conceding racism was the main factor, Mr Lee's family remain convinced it was the case. It certainly would not be unique in the industry.

One former colleague said: "It's done indirectly. Let's say you wanted to leave the work area. As a black person, you would get watched more than a white person. It was the same for timekeeping. You are noticed more than if you are a white person. If we tried to put our point of view across it was not taken seriously."

In an "extremely rare" decision, Mr Lee's mother was given permission by an employment tribunal to launch a posthumous claim of racial discrimination on behalf of her son. It ended yesterday with the out-of-court settlement,

Consignia set up an internal inquiry. A team of senior managers spent more than six months interviewing more than 100 staff. Its findings made "harrowing reading" and led to two managers – Simon Pitt and Stephen Hughes – being sacked for gross misconduct. Four others were disciplined. One area manager who was suspended, Mick Dewhurst, resigned and is pursuing a case of constructive dismissal.

Royal Mail said yesterday: "It was with extreme shock, regret and sorrow that we found the actions of some employees contributed to Jermaine's decision to take his own life. He did suffer harassment and bullying at work and there are strong indications that this weighed heavily on his mind, although it cannot be certain to what extent this contributed to his decision to take his life. Although it is believed Jermaine Lee suffered ill treatment over a lengthy period, the worst incidents were experienced in the period shortly before he died. The actions of some managers at this time are regarded as utterly shameful by Royal Mail and condemned absolutely."

It said its investigation found evidence to suggest that "bullying and harassment was used by some to support a macho culture, which targeted certain individuals" and following the death, details of it were deliberately concealed from more senior managers within the company.

The investigation has led the company to introduce 50 recommendations for change, which include a new complaints procedure and training schemes designed to tackle potential harassment and bullying in the workplace.

Tim Field, founder of the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line said the postal service has a particular problem and it is increasing across all professions. "I deal with five to 10 new cases every day. The Government has really shown no interest in recognising this problem though there is a private members bill – Dignity at Work – due in the Autumn which will hopefully help," he said.

Despite the trauma, Mr Lee said anger was not his predominant emotion when contemplating his son's ordeal.

"It is disbelief. Disbelief that this happened in this day and age," he said.

History - racism in the workplace

In July 1998, four young Asian women won nearly £50,000 compensation for what the Commission for Racial Equality described as "one of the most serious" cases of race discrimination in the workplace. Shabnum Sharif, 18, Naheed Akhtar, 19, and 21-year-old twins Saima and Asma Nazir, above, were banned from observing religious holidays, told not to speak in their native language and taunted with racial abuse by their employer, a Yorkshire stationery firm.

In June 2001, The Football League apologised to an Asian referee after it prevented him from being promoted to Premier League matches. Gurnam Singh, above, had been allocated less prominent games because he was Asian. The league was also found to have unfairly dismissed Singh, aged 47, even though he performed consistently well on the pitch

In April 2002, managers at Ford were found guilty of victimising and abusing an Asian worker, Shinda Nagra, above, at an engine plant in Dagenham. Mr Nagra, 44, told how some employees walked out because they did not want to work with him because of his race.

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