I have mentioned Oxfam before. How I struggled to get a job there, the issues I have with the campaigns, and my beef with Oxfam. Now I want to tell you about another Oxfam experience that have clouded my views. I know I am bias. But these experiences have influenced my thinking. Read My beef with Oxfam to see what I think of Oxfam and especially the people at Oxfam. I respect them and the work they do. But the world doesn’t always work the way we expect it to work. Sometimes mistakes are made. And sometimes it is made by the best out there.
Working for Oxfam was one of the worst working experiences I ever had – if not the worst. And I say this with a heavy heart because I was so looking forward to joining Oxfam. My wife, daughter and me were celebrating into the late hours of the night when we got the news that I got the job. We worked hard for it. We had disappointment after disappointment trying to land that bloody Oxfam job. One rejection after the other. Months and months went by – and all we got was bad news. So when we got the call to tell us we got the job we went wild. This was what I wanted. To work for an organisation like Oxfam. A deeply committed organisation that makes a difference each and every day. And I was going to be part of that. Man, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Making a difference by working for an organisation who had both the people who were deeply committed and the resources to make a real impact in this world.
But even the best of plans don’t always work out. And it started off very badly.
We knew that I had to start off a few notches below my level of experience in South Africa. That’s just how the world works. Or as we say, “That’s how the cookie crumbles”. And the French would say, “C’est la vie”. People don’t think that an African has experience that is relevant to fighting poverty and campaigning at a global level. They believe that we are too stuck in Africa and have less of a global view and experience than them. I don’t agree – but that was the hand that was dealt to me. How living on a mud-patch in the middle of the ocean gives you more experience and wisdom than people living in and amongst poverty I don’t know. But that’s England for you – letting the world know that it will help them, as long as it is the English way or no way. Tsk, tsk. Do I smell colonialism alive and well in the heart buried so deep they don’t even know it?
So I accepted the job at Oxfam knowing that it will be tight in the beginning. Especially with a kid and all (we didn’t know it yet, but my wife fell pregnant in those few days before we left South Africa or just as we got to England – the jury is still out on that one). And the move destroyed any “reserves” we had in the financial department as well. It is expensive to move from one country to another. I mean really. Can’t we just get a standard electrical system so I don’t have to replace everything each time? And with communications nowadays – can’t banks talk to each other? Nope, sorry sir, we don’t talk to other banks. Here’s the catch. Even if you bank with say Barclay’s in Zambia, it won’t help you if you try to bank with Barclay’s in England – they don’t talk to each other. (Rolling my eyes right now.) Yes, each time I moved I lost all credit history. And man, it is better to have a bad credit history than none.
Oxfam covered loads, but not all. We even had to take out a loan to cover some of the expenses. So we knew that the salary would be lower in England, but we were committed to this cause and knew that although it will be tight we will make it. Just make it. No room to breathe.
When I was made the offer to join Oxfam they told me that I will get an allowance to help pay for accommodation. And that it would be paid for four years. That was great news and I even got it in writing as I needed this to rent a place and open a bank account. It also meant that although it would be very tight, my wife could take a few months to help settle in and look after our daughter while she started her new school. We picked a nice area to stay in and everything was set for us to start our new life in Oxford. Oxfam here I come!
We landed in cold November. Hell it was cold. Never been in such cold weather in all my life. We moved into a guesthouse for a few days before we could move into our nice little home in Woodstock just outside Oxford. It used to be a glove factory before they changed it into four small houses. We were the first to move into our little place. Rented, but a roof over our heads. But first I had to go and sign a few documents at Oxfam and just generally get the paperwork done. So off I went to the Oxfam offices to sign some documents. I never felt so excited to just sign a few documents! I was going to meet my new colleagues at last! This smiling paw-paw from Africa they’ll tell themselves when I leave. I was smiling ear to ear.
But that visit turned sour very, very quickly. I got to Oxfam and they immediately sat me down and told me that they made a mistake. That I wasn’t meant to get the accommodation allowance. I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. I got it in writing! Confirmed it twice! And now this? I already signed the rental agreement and got my kid into school! You can’t do this! Not on my first day. But they did…
I was in an extremely vulnerable position. I wasn’t sure of all my rights under the UK law. I might have been a trade unionist in South Africa, but this was way, way foreign. And Maggie pretty much killed the unions back in the 80’s in any case. But I had a bigger problem. I brought my family to the UK and could not just return to South Africa as we made a huge financial commitment to move over to the UK. I resigned my job in South Africa. Sold my house. Took out a loan to cover some moving expenses. But most of all – I promised my wife and daughter that everything will be great in the UK. More than anything – I was just stunned that this great organisation that fight injustice globally could even do this. It just didn’t seem right. Or just.
I tried to discuss it with Oxfam. But I felt vulnerable. There was no union to protect me and I couldn’t play hardball in this foreign country with little money and no other prospects. Oxfam argued that it was a mistake by them and that legally they didn’t have to do anything. Since when did legal arguments stop Oxfam from doing the right thing? I mean really? They fight unjust trade laws, human rights, and pharmaceutical laws each and every day. Now they were hiding behind these same reasons that their campaign targets gave them! That’s double standard. Right?
They made me an offer to pay for a few months, but that was it. They made it clear. No way were they going to pay according to the original agreement – not even close. I had to lump it or leave it. Take it or go back where I came from.
I folded. I accepted. Not that I wanted to accept. But I felt I had no choice. I mean really. I just started working at Oxfam, and moving to a new country and having to set up a new home was stressful enough for me not to have to try and worry about losing my job even before I started. We discussed our options, but knew we had little choice but to except. I thought that we would be able to maybe sort something out and move to a small place and my wife could work as well – not knowing that my wife was pregnant.
When the offer was made I also thought it wise to accept it as I did not want to ‘rock-the-boat’ within the first few days that I was here. How would Oxfam react if I demanded that they paid me what they agreed to pay? I did not want to start in a new job having to fight that same organisation I just committed to – an organisation I wanted to be proud of working for. Maybe I should have. But I didn’t.
Now remember that we are not talking about a small amount here. We are talking about $1,500 per month! A huge amount for the UK especially where everything is so much more expensive than anywhere I have ever lived in. This had a huge impact on our lives. More than we expected even in the worse case scenario.
What annoys me is that the people from the UK did not realise that we could not bring over any of our financial history to the UK. This made it very difficult to get any favourable or even comparable financial terms in the UK (or the US). I was a homeowner and banked with the same bank for almost 20 years in South Africa – but in the UK this meant nothing. I was treated like a 16-year old drunk driver with a drug problem – that’s done some time in jail for theft and bankruptcy.
Oxfam might argue that it did act within the rules or organisational limitations. But what would Oxfam do if this was a company acting like this? Promising someone a certain wage and then when the person start tell them they made a mistake and that they are getting a substantial amount less than before? The point is not what the rules say (rigged rules) – the point is whether Oxfam believed this was the right action to take. Does it seem just and right to you? (Oh, rigged rules is a specific reference to an Oxfam campaign slogan and publication on trade called… Rigged Rules and Double Standards!)
But it wasn’t just me. I realized soon that many people from Africa and other developing countries joining Oxfam suffered this way. I asked for a meeting with Human Resources to help solve these issues. Not my issues – the broader issue of discrimination so other don’t have to face the same as me and my African colleagues. And got no answer. I tried every second week for almost two years. I am still waiting for my meeting…
Oxfam seemed a cold place for us from Africa. Colder than the weather outside in November.
I wonder how Oxfam treated the Brits? Those from the mighty United Kingdom? Very, very different. And the rules are rigged in their favour. British expats taking up a position in Africa get a lot more help from Oxfam than those coming to Oxford. Whatever the reason – it does not make sense from an African perspective and no one understands the reasoning. Why should someone get more financial support when moving to Johannesburg if they are British, but an African moving to Oxford does not get the same. I know the Oxfam rules states that – but then it is just rigged rules.
I lost that battle. And it eventually drove me away from Oxfam. I knew it was time to leave when my pregnant wife had to go and work in a pub at night. At night because then I was at home to look after our daughter. Remember, we had no family to help us out. My wife. My proud, proud wife who never complained. Well, okay – she never complained much. Rigged rule, Oxfam. Rigged rules and no human(e) rights and no justice. It just wasn’t fair trade was it? Just not cricket. Rigged Rules and Double Standards…