A Catholic librarian sacked after she criticised a local council for handing a multi-million pound construction contract to a state-owned Chinese firm is to take her case to employment tribunal.
Maureen O’Bern, who worked at Leigh Library, Greater Manchester, for 34 years was suspended then fired when she objected on social media to the involvement of Beijing Construction Engineering Group International (BCEGI) UK in a £135 million redevelopment of the Galleries, a defunct shopping arcade in Wigan town centre.
The firm was hired to build a new shopping centre with a 150-room hotel, 464 homes, a cinema, a bowling alley and a centre for indoor mini-golf.
But Mrs O’Bern had pointed out that awarding the contract to a company owned by the Chinese government was contrary to the professed commitment to human rights and oppressed minorities of Wigan Council, her employer, because of such abuses by Beijing as the persecution of Uyghur Muslims and other religious groups.
Since 2014, the Communist state has subjected the Uyghurs to forced sterilisations, forced labour and forcible internment in camps for re-education.
A disciplinary hearing by the council concluded that her public criticisms of the contract broke the rules of her employment and constituted gross misconduct.
Mrs O’Bern, 58, was dismissed without notice by the disciplinary panel and has last week she appealed unsuccessfully against her sacking.
A spokesperson from Wigan Council said: “We can confirm that Maureen O’Bern’s dismissal has been upheld following an appeal hearing.
“We do not feel it would be appropriate to comment further given this relates to an employment matter conducted in accordance with council disciplinary proceedings.”
Mrs O’Bern told the Catholic Herald that she fully intends to take the matter further.
She said: “I am going to take it to a tribunal because I don’t think they have followed the procedure and neither does my union representative.”
Although she is a former Unison representative, she is now a member of the Workers of England Union and the Free Speech Union, which has taken a close interest in her case and is considering whether to support her in a civil action against the council.
A practising Catholic who worships at St Patrick’s Church, Wigan, Mrs O’Bern has also received encouragement from Lord Alton of Liverpool, a trenchant critic of the abuses of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Mrs O’Bern said that a delegation from the CCP visited Wigan Council in 2019 to discuss “opportunities” and that the BCEGI has also been awarded construction contracts in neighbouring towns.
She said: “I have been told Bolton and Salford are doing it. The way I see it is that there are lots of things going on in the world but I really believe in human rights.
“I believe you have a right to freedom – you have a right to freedom from torture, you have a right to freedom from oppression and from slavery but the way they are treating the Uyghur people …
“There is not always a lot you can do but I think in Wigan at this moment we can do something,” she continued.
“We can just take a small stand and say we are not dealing with firms that are owned by the Chinese Communist state.
“It is a £135 million contract and Wigan are paying for that with our taxpayers’ money and there wasn’t a proper consultation.”
She added: “In China they don’t believe in democracy or religious freedom and that’s what I really object to.”
Mrs O’Bern is now working with artistic and literary projects in her local community and she intends to stand as an independent councillor in Wigan in the forthcoming local elections next May.
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