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Amnesty International accused of gender discrimination by former staff

EXCLUSIVE: Ex-staff say Amnesty International Hungary has failed to tackle systemic abuse and a culture of misogyny

Sophia Akram
6 January 2023, 12.01am

Five ex-Amnesty International staff say they were subject to abuse and discrimination


Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto/Alamy

Senior management at Amnesty International pressured an employee to give up breastfeeding and subjected others to systemic verbal and psychological abuse, a number of former staff have told openDemocracy – one of whom has breached a gagging order to speak out.

Five ex-employees of the human rights organisation’s Hungary office, all of whom are women, say they experienced discrimination, gaslighting and manipulation.

The alleged abuse took place while AI produced a 56-page report titled ‘No working around it: Gender-based discrimination in Hungarian workplaces’, which urged authorities and employers to act to end gender- and maternity-based employment discrimination.

In another alleged act of hypocrisy, the ex-employees say one-year contracts became the norm for new AI Hungary staff from late 2018. At the time, AI was actively criticising Hungarian laws that permit short-term contracts for handing employers an easy way to dismiss pregnant women.

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“To the outside world, we are working on women’s equality and Amnesty’s gender work was focused on women and the workplace,” said one of the women, Burtejin Zorigt, who was AI Hungary’s gender programme officer and campaign coordinator in 2020.

“Actually, we don’t renew the contract of a pregnant woman? Then I just can’t be a public face of the gender work at Amnesty.”

Another employee did not receive her contract until six weeks after she joined the organisation, with the first draft stating that she must notify AI if she became pregnant or undertook a reproductive procedure. It also gave AI the right to seek a doctor’s verification on both. This clause was removed from a later version of the contract.

Two of the five women, all of whom have made an official complaint to AI, say they suffer psychological and physical symptoms of trauma as a result of their experiences at the organisation.

Misogynistic exchanges

Over video calls, the five former employees told openDemocracy of the toxic work environment they experienced at AI Hungary – claiming a senior manager had an “aggressive” leadership style that was replicated by other team leaders.

Zsófia Gere, 37, spoke of experiencing gender-based discrimination when she returned to work as AI’s office manager after having a baby in 2019.

She said that during a routine work performance evaluation with a manager, she was asked when she would stop breastfeeding and complained that it was preventing her from attending overnight business trips.

The manager also allegedly told Gere he wanted her to spend more time with her child, suggesting she work part-time for a pro-rata reduced salary.

Shortly afterwards, Gere found a new job and resigned from AI. She said the manager then indicated that he had a lot of friends at her new workplace, which she believes was an attempt to intimidate her.

Gere says she was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement that said she had experienced no discrimination at AI and that it was not her reason for quitting. She signed the NDA – which made her liable to a €2,500 penalty for breach – to speed up her departure.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Gere detailed the effect her experience at AI has had on her. “[My] therapist told me that I was a victim of abuse…” she said. “I had low self-esteem; I was terrified that I would make mistakes.”

He said: ‘The office is not therapy, and the mental wellbeing of the staff is not a management responsibility’

Other women say they received disparaging comments from senior management, which they believe were intended to hurt or humiliate them.

Vera Mérő, 38, a campaign coordinator at AI Hungary until July 2019, said a manager criticised her English language skills and, on another occasion in front of other colleagues, told her “you are not as good a campaigner as you think you are”.

Mérő later told the manager she felt he had “overstepped” with his comments about her English.

Speaking to openDemocracy about their conversation, Mérő said: “He simply chose to deny that it ever happened. And that was the first time when I realised that this guy's a gaslighter.”

Mérő said she also tried to raise the unhealthy office atmosphere with the manager, but he told her: “The office is not therapy, and the mental wellbeing of the staff is not a management responsibility.”

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When Ágnes Szalóki joined AI Hungary’s campaigns team in March 2019, the manager said she was on a one-year fixed-term contract because “he didn’t know if this was true love”.

From there, Szalóki, 37, said their working relationship became increasingly strained as he publicly goaded her, questioned her decision-making and visibly demonstrated his impatience. She added that he often took over meetings she was facilitating, on one occasion yanking a marker pen from her hand.

Describing one particularly misogynistic exchange, Szalóki said the manager belittled her meeting with a high-profile judge by glancing at her attire and asking, “Oh, was he flirting with you?”

She also told openDemocracy how the manager sent her angry voice messages and ignored her complaints about her hefty workload, which was causing her stress. Szalóki’s contract was initially renewed for another year, but she left AI Hungary when it expired in 2021.

‘No evidence’ found

Between June 2019 and March 2021, three of the five women involved in the complaint wrote separate all-staff emails to AI Hungary detailing their reasons for leaving the organisation.

The board was also made aware of their concerns, which it privately promised to look into. In April 2021, AI Hungary initiated an internal probe to assess working conditions and employees’ wellbeing with regards to the leadership, as well as the internal working model, HR duties and compensation.

Feeling their concerns were not being taken seriously enough, the five women sent a joint complaint to AI’s Hungary Board and Supervisory Committee the following month. The International Secretariat – AI’s central arm, which oversees the Hungary office’s work via its Europe Regional Office – was copied in.

AI then announced there would also be an independent investigation, focusing on the alleged discrimination.

But the complainants did not believe this probe was sufficiently independent, and refused to participate in it. This was in part because the lawyer AI appointed to carry out the investigation – Andrea Sebestyén – is a former volunteer member of AI’s supervisory board and is described in a 2015 article on AI’ Hungary’s website as “one of our most committed supporters”. A psychiatrist, Gabriella Palotai, was the investigation’s co-lead.

The lawyer appointed to carry out the investigation is a former volunteer member of AI’s supervisory board

Both reviews concluded there was no evidence to dismiss anybody and that AI staff were happy. The findings of the external probe, published in December 2021, did not mention any culture of ‘systemic abuse’ and toxic environment, which were cited in the official letter of complaint.

AI’s international board has since begun a restorative justice process – a typically victim-centred approach involving dialogue to establish the harms committed, seek accountability and move those harmed through their trauma.

This process can take months or even years, and the former staff members say there has been little progress so far – ending the trust they have in formal channels. Zorigt described the overall response from AI’s Hungarian and International boards as “bullshit”.

Previous allegations

The women’s allegations follow a spate of reports on toxicity, racial discrimination and bullying at Amnesty International.

In 2018, two Al staff members died by suicide within five weeks, prompting concerns that work-based pressures contributed to their deaths.

A report by KonTerra, commissioned by AI following the suicides, said one of the deceased had left a note indicating “work pressures played a major part in his decision to end his life”. It found no evidence that AI was a factor in the other employee’s death.

KonTerra’s report identified a strong “us versus them” dynamic between employees and management, “bullying and public humiliation as a management tool”, discrimination based on gender, race and sexual orientation and a “martyrdom” culture where staff members took on huge workloads at the detriment to their wellbeing.

After the report’s release, three AI Australia staff members came forward with allegations of “systemic” workplace bullying and harassment, which they say led two employees to be hospitalised.

AI India – which closed in September 2020 after the country’s government froze its assets – had a culture of discrimination, according to one of its former staff members. More recently, a 2022 review found AI UK exhibited institutional racism.

In response to the allegations made in this article, the AI international secretariat sent openDemocracy a coordinated response on behalf of itself, AI Hungary and the AI Hungary board. While it would not comment on individual HR matters, it said gender discrimination and abuse would not be tolerated at AI, and that it took allegations of both extremely seriously.

The secretariat also acknowledged that the independent investigation had not been to the satisfaction of the former staff members concerned.

It reiterated its support for the steps taken to date by both parties to resolve the issue – referring to both investigations and the meeting with the mediator – and acknowledged that the restorative process had been a “drawn out” one due to both its nature and capacity constraints within the IS.

It added: “Amnesty International’s International Board is fully committed to monitoring this situation and ensuring that lessons are learned as a matter of priority. The issues have been monitored and discussed at IB meetings. As communicated previously with the former employees, the IB has been and remains available to speak and listen to the former employees.”

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