An African Woman’s Plight in Search of Greener Pastures: Workplace Bullying and Discrimination Away from Home

Workplace bullying has become rampant over the years. Growing up, it was assumed that bullying occurred only in schools, but it is now evident that even the workplace harbours it. Lisa* shared her story of workplace bullying and how she was able to overcome it.

Lisa moved from her native country, Zimbabwe, in 2002 to start her tertiary education in Australia. It was a three- to four-year degree. She told herself that she would return home right after she gained a little work experience. Little did she know that the economy back home would just dwindle to a bad state resulting in her family also migrating abroad and her decision to stay. She has not only stayed in one area but moved in search of greener pastures.

What have your experiences been working and living abroad?

I found working in Australia to be challenging because there were little prospects for upward mobility in the workforce. I have encountered the same in the European Union where work permits are difficult to secure and competing with many Europeans with free movement and more languages being taught to them at school was a definite challenge.

(Lisa also worked in Dubai. It is known as a global city and business hub in western Asia. It is a beautiful location where many people go for holidays and shopping, but working there full-time is different.)

I worked in Dubai, which I found to be challenging as a black woman. I experienced what people call intersectional discrimination. I was always a combination of several traits deemed undesirable. I was either too young for a culture that places a great emphasis on honouring your elders and doesn’t embrace change and looks down on youthfulness. That attitude stifles innovation and inhibits growth.

If it wasn’t for that, I was black, and not a ‘better black’ such as an American or a British person. There is still a perception that Africans cannot be skilled migrants or expatriates. We are all assumed to be fleeing war-torn countries, and it’s difficult to overcome these biases.

Finally, I experienced discrimination for being non-Muslim, culturally. These factors always intersected: black and woman or young (inexperienced) and African (not Western) or Christian and deemed insubordinate or unsubmissive or too ambitious.

I’ve moved back to Africa and worked in Botswana and South Africa where it is no secret that Zimbabweans have a reputation for allegedly ‘stealing jobs.’ It’s a challenge because you have to ‘prove’ yourself by working harder than others, e.g. staying late and doing tasks you are under-skilled for or that others simply won’t do. I have also experienced a tendency for employers to exploit migrant workers because of a perception that staff are desperate for a job.

I found working in the Netherlands to be very efficient and very autonomous. I really enjoyed my work and my colleagues were respectful and egalitarian. It was a breath of fresh air, but I had to leave due to not finding an employer willing to sponsor my work permit beyond my study (postgraduate). The tax was too high, though, and the pay was terrible.

I will say the same for Australia. People don’t consider how much money goes to mandatory insurance, transport, expensive housing, taxation and expensive consumer goods in Europe, America and Australia. The take-home pay is peanuts, to be frank, and often, Africans who started with nothing compared to locals find themselves in a cycle of debt and poverty. I lived off credit cards even with a full-time job from Monday to Friday from 9-5 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, I worked in a clothing store just to make ends meet. It’s a very hard life and is very exhausting. It’s not glamorous at all because the more you earn, the more you pay in taxation.

What is workplace bullying?

It can range from small things such as not advising someone of meeting room changes or conference calls so that they look inefficient or it can be physical attacks such as locking someone in the restrooms or moving personal possessions around. Workplace bullying has manifested itself most prominently in workplaces where I have seen a hierarchy structure.

I’ve experienced verbal attacks and outbursts and had people gang up against me, lie to clients about me and coerce others into slandering my character. I have had a boss who took colleagues out to lunch in order to discuss me and then lied about what my colleagues said to HR so that I had no recourse when I reported the bullying. I have had a boss who denied me time off unnecessarily and expected me to do personal errands for her at my private expense.

Most people don’t think this is bullying, but it is. Anything that intimidates, frightens or causes disharmony in the workplace including sabotaging peoples’ work and giving vague instructions or even changing someone’s job description is bullying. Using power or popularity [is] the most common as well as common tactics of covert abuse such as gaslighting, mocking or passive aggression.

How did you cope on a daily basis?

Many people ignore the impact bullying has on your body. It’s important to sleep well, eat well and exercise. It’s difficult to sleep when you are anxious and wondering what may be broken or stolen or given away by your boss and colleagues when you arrive at work the next day, for example. However, you have to take care of yourself.

Exercise releases endorphins into your bloodstream which helps to keep your mood up and promotes rest. Group exercises like running with a friend and processing what role or reaction you might want to change in response to your bullies also really helps.

When people are unhappy, they usually turn to take-aways and comfort eating to make them feel better. It’s hard to be disciplined when being bullied, but relying on fatty foods and sugar creates more problems on top of the bullying.

In addition to advocating for self-care, I would say WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN. You will need a reminder that you are not at fault and it might help with HR later if you decide to report it. No matter how small the offense, write it down.

(Lisa is also grateful for her strong Christian background. She stated that when faced with unpleasant issues, she wakes up and ensures she is grounded by God’s word and has also ensured a rich and vibrant social life.)

What advice would you give to women in the diaspora?

To prioritize self-care. After that, I would say to avoid burnout. Whether you work on a casual contract or a full-time contract, you need to take a few days off to recollect your thoughts and recover.

In the diaspora we have so many challenges like finances, health, family, relationships, depression and all the baggage we left in Zim to manage on our own. Life feels so fast and we usually aren’t working a stress-free job without some sort of issue. I would schedule a day off (or call in sick) to apply for jobs or just stay home and take care of banking, medical appointments or do something unrelated to work just for me like having my hair done or visiting a friend who just had a baby every few months. This was a life-saver.

I advocate for a support network but I also caution discernment. People love to use others so I think being honest and brave enough to put relational boundaries in place is also a necessity for survival.

How did you manage to learn different languages?

I speak Shona, which thankfully is very close to Swahili, so I am learning from YouTube.

I also speak Dutch. It’s a Germanic language very close to English. I challenged myself to attend a Dutch church and learnt it by listening to people speak. I practiced at every opportunity no matter how busy or stressed I was. In every post office, train station and supermarket for example, I would speak Dutch and the people were impressed by how hard I was trying, so they corrected me.

I didn’t have a lot of money for formal lessons, but after I had good conversational Dutch, I joined the library for free and took out children’s books and practiced alongside YouTube. I also would use Facebook to offer to take someone for a cup of coffee in exchange for Dutch practice. I made a lot of friends this way and I’m extremely grateful that I persisted. It was very difficult at first, but I reap the rewards now dealing with European clients who are impressed.

Eventually, I took lessons because it was a requirement to getting my permanent residency, though it cost me significantly less because I was already very good in the basics.

Nowadays we have so many apps, YouTube and courses like Preply to learn languages. Also using sites like Facebook and joining Internations helps a lot to learn about different cultures and build a social network outside of work, particularly if you are being bullied. I joined Internations in the Netherlands and it helped me so much. I also use it a lot in Nairobi. I highly recommend it.

(Lisa currently works in Kenya in an intergovernmental organisation and she is content as she does not experience any of the discrimination like before.)

I have had an opportunity to work with more than 20 different nationalities and I love the vision of the institution and also my colleagues. After two decades in the diaspora, I love working in Africa with Africans. I’m proud of our culture and I believe our continent is on the way to rapid development. I truly believe that.

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