‘Toxic’ Amnesty Workplace Sparks Criticism of Australian Social Sector Culture
13 February 2019 at 5:29 pm
A staff review uncovering a “toxic workplace environment” in Amnesty International’s London office has sparked criticism over the unspoken, harmful workplace culture within some of Australia’s social sector.
The review, which was commissioned following the suicides of two staff members in 2018, found a dangerous “us and them” mentality between management and staff, which it said threatened Amnesty’s status as a humanitarian leader.
“Any organisation that touts protecting human rights as its mission but is itself mired in a conflictual and adversarial culture will lose credibility,” the report said.
“As organisational rifts and evidence of nepotism and hypocrisy become public knowledge they will be used by government and other opponents of Amnesty’s work to undercut or dismiss Amnesty’s advocacy around the world, fundamentally jeopardising the organisation’s mission.”
While the report only interviewed staff from the London Amnesty office, Jeremy Poxon, spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, told Pro Bono News the issues raised in the report were present in Australian organisations too.
He said an issue he had faced personally was not feeling he could speak up about being treated badly at an organisation, out of fear of being blacklisted by the community, or damaging the reputation of an organisation that worked on an issue he was attached to.
“A huge fear I’ve had, and many others have had, is that if you just stand up for your basic rights of the worker, or go public about some poor treatment that you’ve suffered by someone who is a real leader and figurehead in a progressive space that you’ll be blacklisted from this entire movement,” Poxon said.
“It’s an open secret where people are privately talking among themselves but no one’s quite willing to make a stand because they might damage the reputation of an organisation we really believe in socially.”
The latest review, released publicly on 6 February, uncovered widespread claims of bullying, harassment, public humiliation, discrimination, and abuses of power from management within Amnesty’s International Secretariat.
It revealed staff felt their hard work within the organisation was not appreciated by management, and senior staff used Amnesty’s mission as a reason to not deal with complaints.
“Doing so under the guise that staff ‘should be grateful for being able to work at Amnesty’,” the report said.
“Amnesty’s efforts to support staff wellbeing have been ad hoc, reactive and piecemeal: Amnesty has made some nascent attempts to explore wellbeing and has engaged a range of staff care providers for counselling-related services.”
Poxon said because the sector attracted very compassionate and hardworking people, who were passionate and emotionally connected to the issues they were working on, it could make it a hard choice to speak out about being treated badly.
“I know there are heaps of great young passionate workers copping crappy treatment, and being bullied because they believe in the organisation’s principles so deeply,” he said.
“It’s almost like it can come down to a choice. You could either stay and cop the bad treatment, because you feel like the work they’re doing is fantastic, or you leave the organisation, which stops you from doing the work.”
He also said organisations could often lose sight of how they treat workers because they were facing financial or organisational stress.
“We are in the grips of a very conservative government that’s making life really hard for these organisations, and sadly in every sector, when the organisation is under pressure, the staff always suffer the most,” he said.
Poxon said it was up to the sector to come together, and talk openly about the issue and figure out the problem, in whatever form that may be.
“Something like the Amnesty Report would definitely be helpful in an Australian context, given the big explosion of conversation surrounding it after it came to light,” he said.
“It has to start with organisations coming together, for the first time ever really, and actually declare that this is a problem throughout the progressive space.”
Amnesty Australia declined to comment on the issue, but said it was funded and operated separately to Amnesty International.
Pro Bono News also reached out to a number of Australian humanitarian and community organisations, who all declined to comment on the issue.