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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 03:58 GMT 04:58 UK
Cancer patients' 'misery at work'
By Michael O'Connor
BBC News

Hazel Miller

Some cancer patients are facing unfair dismissal and discrimination at work, a BBC investigation has revealed.

Some have even been sacked after being refused time off for treatment.

A new law which came into force at the end of last year has given much stronger protection at work to people with serious illnesses like cancer.

But the Disability Rights Commission said 200 cancer patients had called its helpline this year complaining of problems at work.

The commission said these cases are the tip of the iceberg and many more seriously-ill patients are still unaware of their rights.

They said the managers were just looking after my interests but I didn't see it that way
Hazel Miller

The Disability Discrimination Act, which came into force in December 2005, gives people with cancer and other serious diseases such as multiple sclerosis the right not to be treated unfairly at work because of their condition.

Under the new laws employers must make changes to people's working arrangements, such as time off for treatment or reduced working hours.

These changes - called 'reasonable adjustments' - should ensure cancer patients can return to work in some capacity.

But many people say they have not been offered this option.

Asked to resign

Hazel Miller, from Arbroath, was working as a care assistant in a residential care home when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

After treatment she wanted to go back to her job.

I find it difficult to believe that anyone would disagree with cancer patients being protected in the workplace
Nicola, Newcastle

But, on the morning she was due to start, her employers called asking her to resign, saying they were worried about her welfare.

She refused but a few weeks later her P45 just arrived in the post.

She said: "I feel it was very unfair. They said the managers were just looking after my interests but I didn't see it that way.

"I felt I should have had the chance to go back to work and if I couldn't manage then say, but I didn't even have that chance."

Mrs Miller took her case to an employment tribunal claiming the care home had breached the new law.

Her employers agreed to settle and compensate her.

She said she felt let down by her employers, especially after having gone through so much pain and trauma.

'Genuine concern'

The owners of the nursing home admit they made a mistake but say they were genuinely concerned for Mrs Miller's welfare at work and were unaware of the new law.

The other cases the DRC has handled include a woman working for a major high street retailer who was dismissed because she was not able to give a return date to work after her radiotherapy treatment finished.

Another woman who had a mastectomy was told that time off because of illness or disability was a disciplinary matter and anyone having more than four sickness periods a year would be dismissed.

And a woman who worked for a security firm for 19 years was told she was a "bad investment" because she needed more time off for reconstructive surgery.

Perhaps most shockingly, a woman had a job offer withdrawn by a cancer charity after a medical revealed she had breast cancer six years previously.

Big problem

Agnes Fletcher, from the DRC, said they are shocked at the extent of the discrimination.

"Sometimes employers think a person who's had cancer shouldn't be in work, but it can be very important for people to have the social contact and the income.

"We've had instances of people saying they want to go back to work and employers saying 'I don't want you because you're too much of a risk'. I think that's very sad."

The DRC's helpline has also received a number of calls from employers wanting clarification about the law.

Some employers did not consider members of staff in remission to be covered by the law and others wanted to find out the exact nature of their responsibilities.

Some employers rang asking how long they should keep jobs open for staff diagnosed with cancer; others wanted to know whether time off should be paid.

The DRC said employers need to be more aware of the new laws and their obligations towards staff diagnosed with a serious illness.

It wants the government and employers organisations to help get the message to employers that seriously-ill people are legally entitled to flexibility at work.

Cancer charities are also concerned by the discrimination revealed by the BBC investigation.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer said cancer patients often have to make many visits to hospital for treatment.

That means employers have to be more flexible, but for many cancer patients staying in work really helps them cope with the disease.

Reaction from the Disability Rights Commission


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