Well, it’s finally over. After almost thirteen years I’m drawing a line under my relationship with Solos Holidays after losing the Employment Tribunal for Unfair Dismissal that I brought against them on Friday.
Before I go any further I want to say a huge THANK YOU to everyone who’s supported me over the last ten months since I was sacked, and for all the messages of good luck, support and commiseration I’ve received in the last few days. Truly, it’s been humbling and heart-warming to know that in spite of being considered an absolute nothing and nobody by Solos Holidays, the company I’d given more than twelve years’ loyal service to, people who had been Solos’ clients were loving, kind and grateful for all I’d done for them. I want to especially thank Marie Matheson, herself a Solos’ client that I met on a holiday in Antigua, who was so incensed by Solos’ attitude and behaviour that she came all the way down from Durham to give me her services, completely FOC, by representing me at the Tribunal.
Two positive things I take away from Friday’s Tribunal: the first, that Solos’ witness, Maggie Barnes, the Compliance and Customer Services Manager, admitted on oath that I had been an extremely good tour leader and my dismissal had nothing to do with my work; and the second, that the Judge actually told Solos’ legal representative at one point that if the Tribunal found that I was an employee that the case for unfair dismissal “could not possibly be defended in any way.” I know and Solos know that their behaviour was at best wrong at worst disgraceful, Dickensian and downright shameful.
I thought I was on “compassionate leave” in January this year, when on 30th I received an e-mail from Maggie Barnes. My mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and so I’d agreed with my line manager, Alison Watt, the Tour Leader Co-ordinator Executive for Solos Holidays, that I wouldn’t work at Christmas as we knew it would be Mum’s last.
Looking at it now I can see that Maggie’s e-mail was the typical “shit sandwich”. In the first paragraph, she enquired after Mum and comiserated with me over looking after an ailing, ageing parent. In paragraph two she said Solos had received an anonymous phone call from someone complaining that I’d written a book about a singles’ holiday and that the MD, Andrew Williams, was concerned about it and that there was a data protection issue if I was contacting Solos’ clients about it and therefore wanted me to make an appointment to go in and see him. And then in the third paragraph she said that she couldn’t believe it was already the end of January; that she had been on a detox all month – no wheat, dairy, sugar or red meat – and that her hair and skin were glowing. Now, by any standards this was a casual e-mail to say the least. So, I replied the following day, January 31st, also in a casual manner to what had been a casual e-mail from Maggie. I said that I hadn’t broken any data protection laws as Solos knew that I’d never had access to any clients’ personal details. If I had anyone’s e-mail address it was because they had willingly given it to me, or asked me for mine and kept in touch. I also said that I had received extremely positive feedback from all Solos’ clients and ex-clients who had read the book, and from many people who had never been on a singles’ holiday but who now wanted to try one. I said I’d have a look and see when I could make it and would let them know a date. The following day, 1st February, Maggie e-mailed back to thank me for the e-mail and said “someone will be in touch”.
So, I waited for someone to get in touch about going in for a meeting.
On 9th February I received an e-mail from Alison Watt, the Tour Leaders Co-ordinator Executive, telling me I’d been sacked. The only reason given was that it was “obvious” to the directors from the tone of my e-mail that I didn’t take the negative impact my book could have on their business seriously.
I was shocked. Here was I, sitting waiting like a lemon to be contacted about a meeting when the decision to sack me had already been taken without any discussion with me, or warning of any kind. Being a Solos Tour Leader had been more than a job, it had been a way of life for more than twelve years and now I had been dismissed. Just like that.
So, I decided to go to an Employment Tribunal.
The date was first set for 15th June, but by that time I’d got my little part-time job at Southend Airport and my training week co-incided with the date so I had to ask for a new date. This was set for 12th October. Then, in mid September, I heard from the Tribunal that, in spite of knowing since the beginning of July about the date that Maggie Barnes had gone and booked a three-week holiday in October and therefore we had to postpone again. The new date was finally given as 21st December.
Now, what became interesting was when I received the bundle (the documents the Respondents would use in their defence in the Tribunal) I was able to see how events had, in fact, unfolded.
Included in the bundle were the e-mails between Maggie Barnes and the person who had initially made the anonymous phone call complaining about the book. Solos had said that there had been complaints – in the plural – but it was obvious that this person – a Carol Mitchell – was the same one who had phoned up anonymously. I have to say here, that in spite of her claim that she’d been on a holiday I’d led to Antigua, I have no recollection of Carol Mitchell whatsoever. She claimed in her e-mail that she’d read the internet marketing extract on Singles’ Holiday – some dozen pages from a novel that is 422 pages long – and had recognised herself as being “involved in two of the three incidents mentioned.” I knew this wasn’t right – Singles’ Holiday is, when all said and done, a work of fiction – and I found it hard to believe anyone would find themselves involved in any of the individual events in the book yet alone two out of three mentioned in a short extract, although most will have been on a Solos’ holiday where people have got off with each other, danced and got drunk, been on a boat trip or even experienced a tropical storm plus, as I say, I do not know who Carol Mitchell is.
But some other points of note came out of seeing these e-mails. The first was that Maggie Barnes doesn’t tell her that I wasn’t in fact a Solos’ employee – the line they took in the Tribunal. Secondly, she doesn’t ask even ask Mitchell what these incidents were and she also takes great pains to tell her that she agrees with her that my writing a book is a “betrayal” and “goes against the ethos here at Solos”. Now I found this surprising and somewhat hypocritical as during a very stressful trip in October 2011 when I was dealing with a severely mentally ill client who was causing chaos among the group, the hotel guests and staff and who had personally threatened me to such a degree that security were accompanying me whenever I left my room, she’d sent me two e-mails, one on 25th October 2011 in which she says “perhaps (the events that are happening will be) good material for a book or play, though” and another on 27th October 2011 in which she says “we can perhaps write a book together in the future.” This, about an actual Solos’ client who was mentally ill. I have copies of these e-mails, just as I have copies of everything else I’m mentioning in this blog.
But most interesting of all was the date of the e-mail to Carol Mitchell – 2nd February – especially as this e-mail ends with the sentence “Elaine will not be given any further opportunity to collect any more material for another book.”
So – in other words – on 2nd February, the day after I was told someone would contact me about a meeting, the decision had already been taken to fire me, and a third party had been told about it A WEEK before I was. Why did they wait a whole week to tell me when the decision had already been made? In fact, in the witness box, Maggie Barnes actually said that the Managing Director Andrew Williams – the man who can read tone in an e-mail, which he’d decided was “flippant” – felt that it was pointless having a meeting with me as I would have been sacked anyway. Even if you murder someone you get the chance to defend yourself and speak up. But not with Solos Holidays you don’t.
I was also surprised that Solos were acting as if they hadn’t know about the book. I’d e-mailed Alison Watt on 3rd August 2010, informing her that I was working on my second novel, entitled Singles’ Holiday. As the Judge pointed out – it wasn’t a huge leap to work out what a book with that title might be about. Maggie’s evidence was that Alison didn’t remember it and that she’d “probably deleted it without reading it.” Why would the Tour Leaders Co-ordinator Executive delete an e-mail from a tour leader without reading it? And then at the training afternoon held in December 2011, several tour leaders were talking to me about the book in front of Maggie and copies of it were being passed around and a couple of tour leaders bought copies, so it was no secret. And it was evident from the two e-mails Maggie Barnes had sent me in October 2011 that she knew I was writing the book.
Solos presented no other evidence of any complaints about Singles’ Holiday and when questioned Maggie Barnes said there had been “about seven” comments/complaints on the Solos’ Forum, which had meant the company had pulled the thread so she was unable to produce evidence of this. I had actually seen the thread about Singles’ Holiday – before my access was barred by Solos – and all the comments had been positive, and while that was the case, they had been happy to leave the thread active. Indeed, to date, I have received 183 messages of congratulations from Solos’ clients and ex-clients about Singles’ Holiday – everyone has loved it because in spite of everything that goes on in the plot, it shows singles’ holidays in a very positive light, which was always my intention. I do believe in singles holidays; they work and I wouldn’t have been involved for so long if I hadn’t seen that. Solos could have capitalised on this.
And I have to add here that anyone who has had anything to do with the Solos’ Forum knows it’s a hot bed of gossip, trouble-making and anonimity which has been infiltrated by trolls and the opposition time and time again. Anyone at all can write anything on there, you don’t even have to be a Solos’ client to post.
Solos’ defence was that I had always been “just a social host, whose only instruction was to attend breakfast and dinner with the group”; who had received no training; was not required to ever attend any meetings; was not instructed what to do or how to lead a group but rather had complete freedom to run a trip exactly as she liked; who, in spite of being issued with a Solos’ Tour Leaders’ Manual, should consider the information in it to be guidelines only and not enforceable; and who had no more rights than someone they just contracted to work for them on New Year’s Eve, and, therefore, could never be regarded as an employee. And this, coupled with the fact that the Tribunal Panel accepted that even though I’d worked almost non-stop for Solos for twelve years, during which time they were my main – and for most of it my only – source of income, there had been no umbrella contract but rather each job had been a separate contract which made me a contractee rather than an employee and so the Tribunal had no juristiction to say I had been unfairly dismissed. That Solos had taken PAYE meant nothing and the fact that I’d turned down some jobs – even though the reasons may have been that I was going into hospital or nursing my mum – also went against me.
This has serious implications for those who work as tour leaders for Solos who are left with no protection or rights whatsoever. The flexibility they demand of a full-time tour leader works against that same tour leader because the Tribunal refused to take into account that the tourism industry isn’t like any other. This leaves you completely vulnerable. Yes, they say that a lot of their tour leaders are ex-clients who do the odd job for them to fit round their own businesses. But there were a hard core of professional tour leaders with years of experience and these are the ones it has implications for. But it also has implications for Solos’ clients, who are being sent on holiday with people who Solos willingly admit, have received no training and no instructions on what to do in case of an emergency. Solos even refused to acknowledge comissions earned locally, thus washing their hands of excursions that their tour leaders sell, which means clients can be sold absolutely anything.
I wish I’d known I was only a social host when I’d looked after their clients to the best of my ability; when I’d sat up all night with someone who was suicidal; when I’d spent six Christmas Eves talking until almost dawn to people who were upset at spending Christmas away from home or spending the first Chrismas without a loved one; when I’d gone to the doctors or hospital with people who were ill; when I spent days at a time in hospitals with those who had had serious accidents; when I pushed a woman round a resort in a wheelchair for ten days after she’d had an accident; when I’d gone to the police station to bail people out for being drunk and disorderly; when I’d gone to the police station with clients who had had an altercation with beach sellers or had their purse or bag snatched; when I sorted out the mistakes the latest office junior had made of someone’s booking; when I sorted out things for people who had lost their passports or flight tickets; when I’d got between two men who were fighting; when I’d got between two women who were fighting; when I’d wiped their vomit off my shoes; when I’d put them to bed because they were so drunk they couldn’t do it themselves and then sat in their rooms, afraid they might choke on their own vomit; when I had to take verbal abuse from clients; when I’d dealt with paranoid schizophrenics who’d stopped taking their medication; when I had to sort out the socially inept and spend all day every day with them so they wouldn’t be on their own; when I had to be nice and polite to rude, ignorant people; when I found one of them dead in bed; when I dealt with natural disasters; when I faced a mob, furious at the changes to the holiday and poor accommodation on a cruise ship on the Yangtse; when I completely re-scheduled the whole itinerary of a trip round Cuba when a hotel refused to acknowledge our booking; when time after time I bent over backwards to give people the holiday of their lives without them getting ripped off while keeping them safe – oh yes! If only I’d known then that I was just a social host!
But I hadn’t counted on Andrew Williams, Managing Director extraordinaire; the man with the ability to read tone into an e-mail and the gift of clairvoyance to know what I was thinking without ever talking to me, along with the rest of his Board of Directors. Every single one of them lacking the balls to phone me, or even e-mail me themselves or to face me in the Tribunal; they got Maggie and Alison to do their dirty work. And the fear of the negative impact my book would have on their business? No sign of it that I can see. They’ve had more trips to Antigua in their brochure this year than they’ve had for a long time and numbers on these groups have been robust. The Solos holiday to Antigua has always been popular and I take much of the credit for that!
“So now, what, Elaine?” I hear you ask.
Well, for me it’s onwards and upwards. It’s been suggested by several people that I set up my own trips to Antigua for single people, but I don’t think I will. My heart’s no longer in it.
I will continue going to auditions and in 2013, it’s looking as if we will finally get the Antiguan TV series The Amazing Adventures of Maisie and Em filmed (fingers and everything else crossed!) And I will continue working on my fourth novel – Singles in India. To clarify: this is about a group of singles on holiday in India, just in case anyone’s unsure. And just in case Carol Mitchell has ever been to India on a Solos’ holiday and her ego leads her to assume it’s based on her and incidents which happened during said holiday, I’d like to point out again that I don’t remember her, my book is a work of fiction and any similarity she may claim would be purely co-incidental.
And then, I’m going to start work on the True Life Diary of a Solos’ Tour Leader – a warts and all story based on my diaries of the last thirteen years.
Meanwhile, I hope you all have a magical Christmas. I’m spending mine with the person I most love in the world; my darling daughter.