NIGERIAN Catholic nurse Mary Onuoha has won a landmark victory at an employment tribunal receiving a favourable ruling that she was unfairly dismissed from her job at the Croydon University Hospital for wearing a cross.
Ms Onuoha, a devout Catholic, had worn the piece of jewellery for 40 years and had been a staff member for 18 years. A National Health Service theatre practitioner, she claimed she was severally harassed by bosses, who asked her to remove the small gold cross, who told her that it was a health and safety risk and must not be visible.
She added that from 2015, a succession of managers told her to remove the item from around her neck or the matter would face what they termed escalation. Ms Onuoha said patient safety was risked in an operating theatre to discipline her and her head of department even said he would have to call security if she wore it in a clinical area.
When she continued to refuse to remove the cross, she was suspended from clinical duties and demoted to working as a receptionist which left her feeling humiliated. During the case, the tribunal heard that Ms Onuoha, was forced off work with stress in June 2020 and she believed she faced no alternative but to resign later that year.
In its ruling, the tribunal held that although the hospital claimed there were health and safety policies behind their demands, this was inconsistent with the treatment of other staff, who wore similar items of clothing and jewellery. Also, the panel found in favour of Ms Onuoha and ruled that she was forced to quit her role in 2020 after her employers created an offensive, hostile and intimidating environment.
Meanwhile, the hospital trust has issued an apology to Ms Onuoha and said their dress code and uniform policy has been updated since the matter was raised. Ms Onuoha was employed as a theatre practitioner wearing blue scrubs – a V necked short sleeved tunic and trousers on the bottom.
In theatre working as a scrub nurse, she also wore a standard issue surgical covering which covered her from neck to wrist. Her cross necklace was visible when wearing scrubs but was covered when working as a scrubbed in nurse in theatre.
Ms Onuoha said: “This has always been an attack on my faith. My cross has been with me for 40 years. It is part of me and my faith and it has never caused anyone any harm.
“At this hospital there are members of staff who go to a mosque four times a day and no one says anything to them. Hindus wear red bracelets on their wrists and female Muslims wear hijabs in theatre.
“Yet my small cross around my neck was deemed so dangerous that I was no longer allowed to do my job. I am a strong woman but I have been treated like a criminal.”
Ms Onuoha’s lawyers claimed health and safety reasons were contradictory because she was required to wear several lanyards round her neck while working at the hospital. In addition, the tribunal also found that Croydon Health Services NHS Trust constructively dismissed Ms Onuoha and that the dismissal was unfair and discriminatory.