Hospital appeals discrimination ruling over doctor

 

An appeal against a landmark decision that one of the State's largest hospitals discriminated against a Malaysian junior doctor on race grounds will be heard by the Labour Court this week.

The case follows a finding that St James's Hospital in Dublin discriminated against Dr Bennett Eng (26) by hiring him as an unpaid intern in 2000, while giving salaried positions to his Irish intern colleagues.

The hospital has brought the appeal, saying it wants the court to decide on what it maintains is an apparent clash between Irish law banning workplace discrimination and rules governing the hiring of non-nationals.

The outcome of the Labour Court hearing is likely to have implications for how St James's and other training hospitals allocate paid and unpaid intern positions to Irish and foreign medical graduates.

Dr Eng's case is the first racial discrimination claim to be successfully taken by an employee to the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations (ODEI) under the Employment Equality Act 1998.

St James's was ordered by the ODEI last December to pay Dr Eng about €38,000 in back pay and allowances, but this payment has not been made pending the outcome of next Wednesday's Labour Court appeal.

Central to Dr Eng's discrimination claim is the system under which paid and unpaid or supernumerary internships are allocated. A specific number of paid intern training posts are available to graduates every year in St James's, and other training hospitals. If the number of graduates in a year exceeds the number of paid posts on offer, the remaining doctors can be offered unpaid intern positions.

However, priority for paid posts, funded by the authorities, is given to Irish doctors or those from the European Economic Area - the 12 EU states and Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

Although posts are generally allocated on the basis of medical exam rankings, non-EEA graduates are displaced from paid posts to make way for EEA graduates, a practice which Dr Eng successfully challenged. In his case, an Irish graduate who ranked lower than him on merit was allocated a paid intern post, with a basic salary of €2,000 a month, while Dr Eng was entitled to overtime only.

The hospital contended its allocation of paid intern posts was justified under work permit rules governing the hiring of non-EEA workers such as Dr Eng. Before a work permit can be granted, employers must show it was not possible to fill the vacancy with Irish or other EEA nationals, who do not require work permits.

In her decision last December, ODEI equality officer Ms Mary Rogerson did not accept that the work permit rules showed a "legitimate ground, other than nationality", for the difference in pay between Dr Eng and paid interns.