Migrant workers agree landmark NHS guidance on use of different languages at work

Guidance should help UNISON members to feel confident to speak up, in any language they choose

New guidance for managers and staff on the use of different languages at work has been launched at Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, in partnership with UNISON.

The guidance sets out a framework for promoting an inclusive approach to multi-lingual teams and celebrates the diversity of the NHS workforce, including many internationally educated nurses and healthcare assistants who have recently joined the trust.

The initiative was led by UNISON reps Adekunle Akinola and Nuria Mort, following reports of a workplace incident in which a manager confronted two healthcare assistants, who were picked up for having a private conversation in Russian.

Following the incident, the healthcare assistants found themselves rostered on separate shifts, a detrimental action which resulted in a grievance against the trust.

Under the union’s Race Discrimination Protocol, a referral was made to Thompsons Solicitors and Somerset Health branch had a potential Employment Tribunal claim in the pipeline.

UNISON-supported mediation was enough to de-escalate the situation, and the workers received an apology from the manager concerned. The trust also recognised there was a gap in management training and guidance on handling these issues, and a need for wider organisational learning.

UNISON then met with the trust to begin partnership working on new guidance for managers and staff.

Draft guidance was tabled at the trust’s partnership forum which, while well-intentioned, continued to contain inbuilt assumptions about the primacy of English in relation to other languages at work, and imposed an overly restrictive set of conditions in which non-English languages could be “allowed” to be spoken.

Adekunle and Nuria spoke powerfully about language being at the core of an individual’s identity and fundamental right to self-expression, and something to embrace in the workplace. They successfully pushed for a joint working group to be set up to review draft guidance, and organised a workshop for UNISON migrant worker members to share their lived experiences in a safe and confidential space.

As well as giving a critical voice to members in the consultation, this exercise generated lots of unique insights and feedback, which resulted in the guidance going through several re-drafts. HR leads at the trust have acknowledged the invaluable learning curve that their open listening has taken them on.

The final version of the guidance is much improved on the original, reflecting a modern and progressive employer that draws inspiration and strength from a workforce with so many backgrounds and cultures. It should also help UNISON members to feel confident to speak up, in any language they choose.

For information on the guidance and how the branch organised and represented migrant worker members to shape this important document, please contact UNISON Somerset Health branch: office@unisonsh.org.uk