Oxfam axe volunteers in bitter fallout over alleged anti-Welsh language tirade
Oxfam has axed volunteers in the bitter fallout of a two-year feud, which began with an alleged anti-Welsh tirade by a charity shop staff member.
Retired couple Susan and Paul Baker, who volunteered at the store in Hay-on-Wye, are the latest volunteers to be dismissed from their roles, according to The Times.
This is the latest episode in a saga that began in March 2019, in the Welsh border town, when Eifion Williams, 48, from Wrexham, claimed on Twitter that a member of staff told his family to leave the shop because they were conversing in the language.
He said: “a man behind the till” told his family to “get out of the shop and stop speaking that bloody foreign language”.
Oxfam responded by issuing an apology and suspending Vaughan Evans, a part-time manager at the store, and then promptly closed the shop, even changing the locks.
At the time of the incident, Rachel Cable, Head of Oxfam Cymru, said: “We are concerned by reports that a member of Oxfam’s team in the Oxfam shop in Hay-on-Wye made an unacceptable comment about the Welsh language.
“We are very sorry for any offence that this has caused. The alleged remark does not reflect Oxfam’s values and we take allegations of this nature very seriously.
“We strive to ensure that inclusivity and diversity are at the heart of our approach wherever we work in the world, including here in Wales.
“We are now looking into this matter with the utmost urgency.”
The Minister for the Welsh Language, at the time Eluned Morgan, said she was “extremely disappointed” to hear of the incident and added that “steps need to be taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again”.
Evans denied making the remarks about the Welsh language, and the incident was investigated. Though disciplinary hearing concluded that the allegations could not be substantiated, he was not reinstated to his post.
This prompted a stand-off between volunteers who wanted their manager reinstated and Oxfam bosses, who did not.
The feud reached boiling point when Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam’s chief executive, personally travelled to the town amid support from senior figures within the annual Hay-on-Wye book festival.
Sriskandrajah apologised for the “pain and hurt” the closure of the shop had caused and said that the suspension “should have been handled better.”
The store then prepared to reopen to the public in February 2020 under new management, but before they were allowed return to the shop, volunteers had to to take training courses, which included suggestions such as greeting customers in Welsh.
According to Juliet Lewis, 66, a volunteer for 15 years at the store, she and other volunteers had to watch a video of cartoon bears hugging to help them understand empathy.
She told The Times that she was told to change the name of her ‘oxfambookshay’ Instagram account, as well as delete posts that could be seen as “detrimental” to the charity. These included posts criticising Oxfam’s use of plastic packaging.
One also featured an illustration from a book, which was for sale in the shop, by the renowned classicist Professor Mary Beard, portraying an ancient Greek figure balancing a wine goblet on his erect penis.
Sacks of items donated by the public were thrown out, as the shop prepared to reopen. It is claimed that this went against conflict resolution agreements with volunteers, who say they’d been told they’d be consulted on the lay out and running of the shop.
They say this also went against the way volunteers were already doing things by concentrating their efforts on selling donated items and second-hand books. This did not fit with the charity’s desire to market its range of “Sourced by Oxfam” ethically produced items.
Lewis and other volunteers protested against the changes, and new rules which meant they had to to sign up to Oxfam policies, which they said they had never seen, and this led the charity to withdraw their invitations to volunteer.
Susan and Paul Baker were the latest in a line of volunteers to be dismissed, and their appeals to resolve outstanding issues were rejected by the charity.
Volunteers are also still angry about how the initial claims from 2019 around remarks about the Welsh language were handled.
Juliet Lewis added: “As far as the world is concerned, we’re all still racists and that rankles — they didn’t stand up for us, they didn’t have our backs.”
Oxfam confirmed that four volunteers were dismissed from their roles, with a spokesperson telling The Times: “We were disappointed that, despite extensive efforts by both Oxfam and the volunteers, including undertaking mediation, it has proved impossible to resolve the situation in any other way.
“The four volunteers felt that they were unable to accept the ways of working which are standard across our shop network or commit to fully uphold our values.
“The shop reopened this year following lockdown, bringing in some new volunteers to work with the remaining dedicated and committed team.
“We acted swiftly to investigate allegations that a member of staff at the Hay-on-Wye shop had made unacceptable comments. Given the serious nature of the alleged comment we believed the right thing to do was to apologise immediately to anyone who may have been offended, pending a further investigation.”