On 21/10/2020 an employee at the doctors without borders’ (MSF) clinic for the rehabilitation for survivors of torture in Athens, working at the reception position and a member of SVEMKO (base union of NGO workers), was informed of her dismissal, under the pretext of the clinic’s reduced activity due to COVID.

Our co-worker is a single parent and is working at the clinic since May of 2018. Since the beginning of 2020, shortly after the arrival of the new field coordinator, she has been the victim of systematic discrimination and targeting by the administration. Namely, during the lockdown period, while the rest of the staff was given the option to work from home, it was asked of her to use her “special purpose” leave. In fact, she was given no other alternative and she was not included in the clinic’s work rotation. When her leave days started to run out, and she raised the issue of equal participation in the team and working in physical presence at the clinic, the response was negative. On top of that, her request for inclusion in the clinic’s work schedule had as a result further abusive behaviour from the coordinator’s part. When she brought to the HR manager’s attention, incidents and behaviours, it was made clear to her that coercion to taking “special purpose” leave was prohibited and our co-worker returned to her work. During the next period, she was the only employee who was being checked daily on the phone by the field coordinator, at the beginning and end of her shift, to verify that she was at her post. Furthermore, she was assigned tasks with an extremely pressing timeframe, without the provision of the required equipment (laptop), which was the case for another employee, having as a result her physical and mental exhaustion, when at the same time the administration’s behaviour towards the clinic’s other employees was different and lenient.

At the beginning of October, shortly before the announcement of her dismissal, it was attempted to impose on her the task of taking the temperature and assessing the COVID symptoms, that was done upon the patients’ entrance in the clinic. Our co-worker objected raising the following points: the taking of temperature was not in her job description, she didn’t have the knowledge to assume that responsibility, when not even the required protection measures were adhered to, while she belongs in a vulnerable population group. She also noted her concern about the fact that the assessment of the symptoms only took place for the clinic’s patients and not for anyone who entered the clinic, creating in practice a clear distinction between the staff and the visitors on the one hand, and the patients on the other hand, separating “us” from “them”. That position, which was up until then voluntarily covered by members of the staff, and which was also rejected without consequences by medical personnel of the clinic due to fear of exposure to COVID, was attempted to be forced upon our co-worker, not only with direct requests but also by indirect psychological pressure. Her objection was followed by statements from her line manager, that if she insisted on her stance, disciplinary measures would be taken. Moreover, her reasonable doubts were interpreted, during her meeting with the HR department, as refusal of duty in order to justify her dismissal.

The distinct treatment and abusive behaviour that our coworker was subjected to are not isolated incidents in an organisation, which offers disproportionate work benefits and executive roles to its international staff (expats) during their missions, compared to those of the national staff. Even though this reality is not a particularity of the mission in Greece, in the aforementioned clinic the institutional discrimination is reflected on the significant number of forced resignations and dismissals, exclusively of national staff. Confirming the documented, on an international level, colonialist approach of MSF, the organisation is investing in cheap specialised local staff and fires a low-salary single parent who is claiming her rights at the time of a pandemic, while at the same time is facilitating expat missions with their whole family, all expenses paid and lucrative international salaries, compared to the much lower Greek ones. The dismissal of our co-worker is unjust and vengeful, with no social criteria taken into account, since, evidently, those are considered only for the expats of the organisation.

Our co-worker’s case also highlights once again women’s and femininities’ place in the work spaces, which not only remains harsh but is constantly deteriorating. It is clear that NGOs, despite the frail humanitarian façade they project, are no exception in the rule of generalised labour brutality. Salary gap, flexible forms of work, unpaid domestic work, dismissals of pregnant women and new mothers, gender-based exclusions, and sexist behaviour constitute our daily labour reality. The galley conditions for NGO workers have declined even further because of the emergency in the COVID era. Dangerous work due to insufficient protection measures, loss of earned labour rights (as was the case with the “special purpose” leave, which especially burdened parents with young children), intensification and precarity compose the setting of a labour dystopia.

In this situation, that is being formed, with the attack of the state and the employers, our answer can be no other than solidarity between the workers, collectivisation of our resistance and counterattack to take back what belongs to us.