Physio pursues unfair dismissal claim while fighting deportation

Royal Stoke University Hospital
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An NHS physiotherapist is facing a battle to remain in the UK as she awaits an employment tribunal scheduled for early next year.

Nigerian Uju Onuigbo, 39, was told to leave the country when her work visa became invalid after losing her job with the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust (UHNM) at Royal Stoke University Hospital in August 2017.

The loss of her job meant that she lost her visa rights, which only allowed her to work for the trust. In June 2018, Onuigbo said, she was advised to leave the UK or apply for another visa. Because she was planning to make a claim for unfair dismissal she applied for discretionary leave to remain, with a fee exemption given she could not afford the leave to remain visa fee of £1,033. This application was rejected, and a further appeal decision is pending. During this period, Onuigbo has had to report to Salford immigration office once a month.

At Onuigbo’s most recent immigration appeal hearing, in July, at which she represented herself, her case was dismissed, as, in October, was an appeal. She told Stoke-on-Trent Live: “They say I have a right to be here for my employment tribunal – but keep refusing my visa.”

According to her Gofundme page, Onuigbo is a qualified physio with more than 10 years’ experience and completed a masters degree in physiotherapy at Salford University. She worked for more than three years at UHNM initially as a physiotherapy assistant.

She said she identified gaps in her skills relating to respiratory physiotherapy and wanted to undertake extra training, as agree by her appraiser. This was declined yet, Onuigbo claimed, she was transferred to the cardiothoracic unit, the very department where this skills gap was likely to be exposed, and led by the colleague who had rejected the training application.

Onuigbo’s Gofundme page alleged that she felt early in her employment that she was being treated differently to some of her colleagues and “there was a culture of bullying and discrimination that led to a number of colleagues quitting their roles”.

Now working as a junior physiotherapist, her competence was questioned during a capability process without prior discussions, she alleged, and her mental health was affected, which led to a panic attack and time off work with anxiety and depression. According to her Gofundme page, she did not have the luxury of moving jobs because her visa was sponsored by the Trust “and so I endured the bullying and discrimination”.

At a return to work assessment in September 2015 the Trust’s occupational health adviser found that Onuigbo should not have been assigned to the unit. However, despite further transfers and Onuigbo’s insistence that her skills gaps had not been addressed, she was subject to a further capability process and dismissed.

She had been offered a job by Macclesfield NHS to help with winter pressures since the dismissal but was unable to take up the role because of her visa situation.

Following her dismissal, Onuigbo was suspended by the Heath and Care Professions Tribunal Service so she could no longer work as a physiotherapist, but her licence was restored at a review hearing in October 2018, but under stringent conditions that make practising difficult.

Onuigbo claimed she was subject to bullying, racial discrimination and disability discrimination at the NHS trust and her case has been listed for a 10-day hearing in February. She is trying to raise £10,000 for legal representation.

Her latest application to remain in the UK is currently under consideration and she continues to report at the Immigration Service Centre while she prepares for the employment tribunal case. She told local press that she was using food banks and was “completely completely dependent on borrowing from my friends for rent and daily living expenses”.

Onuigbo’s Gofundme page states: “At a time when the NHS is working hard to stamp out bullying and harassment it is indeed shameful that taxpayer’s funds are being spent by the Trust to protect staff whose actions and attitudes are not compatible with the values of the NHS and of modern Britain.”

University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust told Personnel Today that it was unable to comment because of the pending tribunal hearing.

Chetal Patel, partner at law firm Bates Wells, said: “The Home Office’s visa system, in many cases, can produce unnecessary uncertainty and long delays for applicants. This can have a knock on effect on all aspects of an individual’s life in the UK, as highlighted by this particular case.

“The harsh reality is that the lack of a correct immigration status can mean that an individual cannot work or have access to benefits. This is an example of the hostile environment or in its more cuddlier terminology, the compliant environment.”

Kirsty Cooke, a senior associate at Ashfords Solicitors, said the case illustrates the difficulties workers face if they lose a job while sponsored on a Tier 2 visa.

“Under a Tier 2 visa, the employee’s right to live and work in the UK is tied to their ongoing employment with a particular employer who is licensed by UK Visas and Immigration to employ non-EEA nationals. In circumstances where their employing ‘sponsor’ terminates their employment (on whatever grounds), the worker must find alternative employment with another employer (who is also a licensed sponsor) or face being removed from the UK.

“If there are genuine and fair reasons for dismissing an individual who is in the UK and sponsored on a Tier 2 visa, employers should not, however, be reluctant to do so simply because the individual’s immigration status is linked to their employment. Treating non-EEA employees who are on a Tier 2 visa differently from those who are not, is likely to lead to discontent in the workplace and could lead to potential issues of race discrimination.”

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