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'Deserters' in court victory

Teachers should not have been sacked for leaving jobs in the run-up to the Iraq war. Yojana Sharma reports

British teachers sacked for "deserting" their posts at Kuwaiti schools during the 2003 Iraq war have won a resounding legal victory on the grounds of unfair dismissal.

After the court ruled in his favour, former British School of Kuwait (BSK) teacher Neil Rossiter said: "This is a victory for every teacher in Kuwait."

In his view, some schools had "operated without any consideration for the moral, ethical or legal aspects of their actions".

"This judgement shows that no one is above the law in Kuwait," he said The UK Foreign Office advised non-essential staff to leave the country in February 2003, in advance of war breaking out in Iraq. But dozens of British teachers working for international schools were told not to return by school management.

Kuwaiti courts found in more than a dozen cases heard over recent weeks that many teachers were unfairly dismissed. The court found the teachers did not leave with the intention of not returning.

"In the run-up to war, the teachers were working under difficult circumstances which the court considered extraordinary," said Mohammed Al Noor, of Al-Twaijri and Partners, the law firm representing 15 British, Irish, Australian and New Zealand former BSK staff. It has fought 12 cases successfully, and two are still to be heard. Mr Al Noor said. One case failed in the lower court on a technicality and would be reheard.

BSK called a number of meetings in which it gave teachers oral permission to leave without jeopardising their jobs.

Mr Al Noor said: "In many cases the schools concerned operated double standards. Only a few of those who left and came back were dismissed.

Others who left were not dismissed. We consider this to be an unprofessional and discriminatory way of behaving towards staff."

In the run-up to the war, school management and teachers wrangled over the definition of "essential" staff. But controversy has also surrounded the role of BSK principal Graham Hawkins, the British Embassy's warden at that time, who was responsible for advising staff on whether to stay or leave.

Teachers claim this caused a conflict of interest at his own school, which Mr Hawkins denies. He said every single Foreign Office edict was "published in full and read to the staff".

At the time, British Embassy advice was interpreted in different ways by school management and teachers and criticised for being unclear.

The British Embassy in Kuwait has declined to comment on the issue, saying it was "a case that is between members of the British community".

The court has ordered the BSK to pay lost earnings and other compensation due under the country's labour laws. These include gratuities, the cost of return flights, holiday pay and teachers' salaries to the end of their contracts.

The BSK is appealing the size of the pay-outs, but Mr Al Noor said the few cases still to be heard will be underpinned by the legal principles established in the cases already successfully fought.

However, Mr Hawkins said: "It is clear the cases won't be decided until all the appeals are heard. Whatever the final outcome we will abide by it, but we feel we acted morally and legally and were in the right.

"However, we are a Kuwaiti business and subject to the laws of the state."

Seventeen of the 60 staff members who left during the war were dismissed by BSK. Several cases are also being heard against Kuwait National English School (KNES), which dismissed 11 staff, and three other schools. KNES teachers rejected the school's initial attempt to settle out of court and are seeking increased compensation under the law.

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