USA sees increase in Accent Discrimination at Work

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How do you get on with accents? Do you work with people with heavy accents? How would you feel if you lost your job because your spoken English was a bit different? In the USA, insurers are seeing more claims against employers for accent discrimination.

Here in the office at Kwintessential, we are pretty used to foreign accents. We have interns coming from all over Europe and a great deal of the interpreters and translators we ask to perform our assignments often have accents as well. However, not all companies and countries are as comfortable with accents as we are.

In the US, for example, many employers don’t know how to cope with the foreign accents of their employees. This can lead to fairly nasty situations in which employees are fired for no other reason that speaking with an accent. Thankfully, there is an organisation that stands up for these people.

In the US, an increasing number of people claim they are discriminated against because they don’t speak the English language very well. In 2011, more than 11,800 complaints about discrimination were made to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is an increase of 76 per cent in comparison to 1997. According to the EEOC, this increase can be attributed to a diversification in the American work force, as 45 per cent of the Americans now speak a foreign language at home. However, Civil-rights advocates believe discrimination has increased as the work place environments have changed because of the tougher new immigration laws.

John Meija, legal director for the ACLU of Utah, even describes the American climate as a ‘climate of fear.’ Nowadays, employees file complaints and even take their employees to court for discrimination cases. Russian immigrant Ishmail Aliyev is one of those employees that has filed a lawsuit against his former employee. Aliyev was fired from his job as a driver for FedEx because of, he claimed, his Russian accent. However, he claims he only had a warning about his accent from GNB Trucking, the company he works for. According to spokeswoman Erin Truxal, Aliyev was ‘disqualified’ as a FedEx driver because he violated various safety rules in Iowa, of which one was not speaking sufficient English. Aliyev has sued both GNB Trucking and FedEx in hopes of a compensation for his lost wages and other damages he suffered. This was probably the only way to receive some sort of payment, as Aliyev’s lawyer has stated that ‘FedEx just decided they didn’t want to deal with him, or even talk to him.’

It must be said that not all of these court hearings are decided in favour of the discriminated person. In Arizona, Alejandrina Cabrera [above] was not allowed to be a city council candidate because of her insufficient English proficiency. The Arizona Supreme Court referred to a state law from 1913 that prevents people who are unable to ‘speak, write and read the English language’ from occupying a public function. According to EEOC spokeswoman Krista Watson, the federal government has amended these rules in 2002. Now, these rules can only be enforced when the English language is crucial when performing a job.

A similar case in California did have a happy end for the accusers. Here, a group of Filipino workers have received one million dollars after claims that they were severely reprimanded after speaking with an accent or in their native language. The hospital claims they did nothing wrong, because the English-only policy is absolutely necessary in a hospital. This is not the only claim about employers who forbid their employees to speak in their native language, even during breaks or when they were off-duty. The EEOC advises employers to distinguish between a merely discernible foreign accent and one that interferes with communication skills necessary to perform job duties.’

by Elise Kuip

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