Charity accused of endangering employee by covertly contacting immigration authorities about him

The former staff member was dismissed after the charity ruled his work permit was no longer valid in the country where he was based

Passport (Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Passport (Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Tearfund has been accused of endangering an employee by covertly contacting immigration authorities about him in the midst of political unrest in the African country where he was working.

Ben Nicholson, a former employee at the Christian development charity, was dismissed after Tearfund ruled his work permit was no longer valid in the country where he was based.

But it has emerged Tearfund had written to the country’s immigration officials to question whether his visa should be renewed, without informing Nicholson or his manager, or adhering to its own internal policies.

Nicholson has told Third Sector that the move could have endangered him, his family and pro-democracy activists he was working with, due to the closeness between the country’s immigration department and intelligence services, and level of political unrest in the country at the time.

Another staff member raised concerns that Tearfund had put “a corporate aim… before staff welfare”.

Tearfund said it had been advised it could no longer legally employ Nicholson and continuing to do so could have jeopardised the charity's presence in the country.

Nicholson was working for Tearfund on a temporary work permit which needed to be renewed each year and, under the country’s immigration rules, could not be renewed for more than five years.

In 2017, the country’s immigration services granted Nicholson the permit for a sixth consecutive year, in contravention of its own policy.

Nicholson alerted Tearfund to the issue but the charity accepted his right to work in the country.

But the following year, while Nicholson was preparing to submit his next application, a senior staff member at Tearfund wrote to the country’s immigration authorities, alerting them to the fact that Nicholson’s current permit should technically not have been issued, and questioning whether he should be allowed to have another permit.

Neither Nicholson nor his direct line manager were made aware of the letter until after it had been sent, and the charity later admitted that it “did not follow a clear and documented process of sign-off” in sending the letter.

Nicholson submitted a simultaneous application for a renewal of the one-year visa and a longer-term residency permit – but in spite of Tearfund’s letter and its own policy, the immigration committee chose to grant him a further one-year visa.

However, Tearfund declined to accept this visa and dismissed Nicholson.

At the time, the charity was pursuing a programme of “nationalisation”, reducing the number of European expat employees while increasing the number of local people employed in its country offices.

Nicholson said he believed the charity had intervened in the application process and then rejected his permit as a way to circumvent the consultation and redundancy processes that would have been required to remove him through the nationalisation plan.

He told Third Sector: “There’s a very legitimate argument around nationalisation, and I’m very sympathetic to that, but there’s also the law and due process on how you change your staff, and taking shortcuts which put people at risk is not acceptable, even if the end goal is.”

Nicholson’s manager also raised this concern at the time, after he was informed about the letter.

In an email to the charity’s HR director, seen by Third Sector, the manager said: “I think this is an example of putting a corporate aim (nationalisation) before staff welfare.”

He also questioned why neither he nor Nicholson had been informed about the letter, a move he said “lacks transparency”.

He wrote: “The only good reason for doing this would seem to be that there was a concern that the relevant staff member had not acted correctly on previous occasions.”

But he added, if this were the case, the concerns should still have been raised with Nicholson in order to tackle potential “unacceptable behaviour”.

Third Sector has also been made aware of a similar case, in which the immigration status of an individual working in another African country was rejected by Tearfund, despite having been approved by the country's authorities and having been understood and accepted by the charity for a number of years previously.

The individual, who was dismissed, also believes this happened as a result of the charity attempting to bypass procedures for changing the make-up of the country office, although in this case, they do not feel they were placed in danger.

In a statement, Tearfund said: “All Tearfund employment contracts are subject to the individual having the right to live and work in the country in which they are based.

“In the case put to us by Third Sector, we were given clear advice and direction by external lawyers that we could no longer legally employ him in the country where he lived and wished to work, and continuing to do so against the law could have jeopardised Tearfund’s presence in the country as a whole.”

It did not respond on the record to questions about why it contacted immigration without informing Nicholson.

In the second, anonymous case, the statement said: “We believe this may refer to a case in which unfortunately we were advised by in-country external legal advisers that the visa obtained by the individual was not valid and we were unable to continue their employment.”

Tearfund had previously signed a non-disclosure agreement with Nicholson over a separate issue on the same day it publicly pledged to stop using such agreements and to cancel all existing ones.

The names of the countries involved have been omitted in order to protect the identity of workers and activists.


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