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Maria Eulalia DeSouza (1939-2001)

Maria Eulalia DeSouza

Gail DeSouza

Goan Overseas Digest

October 2002

Edited version of article

Maria Eulalia DeSouza (1939-2001)
Maria was a determined fighter for racial justice in the UK and a model for the Goan community.
Below, her daughter Gail from North London writes about her mother and also about her own struggles.
Written in October 2002. by Gail DeSouza

Early years
The narrative below is mostly about my mother and her struggle for justice and human rights. It is hard to describe someone who is no longer with us and even more difficult to remember the details of her achievements. It is hoped that readers will gain some insights from her experience and be alert to the problems and pitfalls that can come their way in the UK & the European Union.

Maria Eulalia De Souza was born in 1939 in Eldoret, Kenya. She was the eldest daughter of 7 children and her father Lawrence Da Costa worked for a division of General Motors, which came under the umbrella of Tiny Rowland, the colonial entrepreneur. One uncle was a Portuguese Consul in Mombasa and another a Deputy Mayor of Bombay. Maria’s father had encouraged her with her education, from schooling at St Michael's Convent in Bombay right through College.

Maria soon found employment as a top Shorthand Secretary for companies in Kenya such as the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). She also worked for British and American companies including the The Times (UK) and others. Around 1973, she received an offer of a job at the United Nations but this would require a move to Paris. Because of family commitments, she declined the offer. Her career continued even after her marriage to Filo De Souza, who worked as engineer with the East African Airways. They had two children - Gavin born in 1969 and Gail in 1970.

To Britain and racism
As British passport holders, the family was entitled to migrate to the UK. This they did in 1975. They started life comfortably in London and lived there for a while. My dad then received a job offer at Basingstoke in Hampshire and the family moved there in 1976. While my dad was able to use his specialist skills in the new job as an aircraft engineer, my Mum also discovered that skilled shorthand typists were in great demand.

She took up the post of a PA Secretary with the Automobile Association and enjoyed her early days at the Company. But soon race problems arose. Around 1981, she fell victim to a series of acts of racial discrimination - breaching her employment contract, granting her less attractive terms, excluding her from parties. There were also racial taunts from Management like “give the typing to the Wog”, heard and testified by white colleagues in her favour. Maria refused to be humiliated and intimidated. She instituted proceedings under the Race Relations Act (1976). She soon found that in practice there are two types of British citizenship - for white and black - and your treatment in the British courts can depend on your colour. If you are labelled ‘black’, it can be more difficult to secure justice. Your ethnicity - whether Caribbean, Chinese, Indian - is of no consequence.

It is vital that the correct law as a Black British Citizen is applied. Maria realised that a black litigant should be well versed with the law and she began a thorough study of the appropriate legislation.

The Race Relations Act had come into force just four years ago and relatively few complaints had been lodged. As the case went through the British Courts, it made news in the Basingstoke Gazette, Southern Evening Echo, the Times and the BBC 9.00pm News. It was a landmark case because the outcome could apply to the 17 million ethnic citizens of Europe. The Industrial Tribunal right to the European Court of Human Rights have tried to obstruct all the facts coming to light.

Law degree
This was the first ever case of its time that called for the definition of race discrimination and distinguish between direct & indirect discrimination. The decisions that the Court made at each level were thrown out, while the Company sought to settle out of court. Settling out of court seemed to be the rule of the day and acceptable to those who did have not the tenacity to continue with the “battle of the forms”. The case turned out to the greatest challenge that Maria had faced and she was determined to fight it out. She not only wished to secure her own rights but to set an example for her children and grandchildren.

In 1994 at the age of 55 she studied law and earned her LLB degree. Maria pursued her case for nearly 20 years until her death at 62. Maria had health problems for sometime - one was vitiligo (a skin disorder) that shows in white patches on skin. By the age of 50, her skin had gone wholly white. When she visited Goa, the locals thought that she was European and addressed her as Madam - until she spoke Konkani. Other ailments included diabetes, Repetitive Strain Injury (tenosynvitis) and cancer (of the breast & bone). She died on 25 June 2001. The case is now with the European Courts of Justice. It remains sub judice pending a decision and the family is awaiting this decision.

Maria fought long and hard. She was a lone fighter and a pioneer in her community. Clearly unless people are aware of their rights and are prepared to struggle against justice and equality, we will only be second class citizens of the UK and the EU.

Daughter takes on Mum’s mantle
I believe that Mum’s spirit has flowed into me, my brother and most recently into my niece Lauren Eulalia Jane De Souza! I too have experienced institutional racism. My first experience occurred in 1983 when I was in my third year at the secondary school in Basingstoke, Hampshire. I had been top of my class and should have been moved up to a higher grade but found myself passed over by a girl who had copied my work. When I confronted the teacher, I was amazed to hear the reason for not moving me up:
I did not sit at the front of the class smiling!

I have continued to experience some form or other of institutional racism through my career. I have had to put up with hurtful remarks from management like “send them packing in their banana boats”. However, when an incident proved serious enough to affect my “dignity at work”, I was ready to fight back and prevent its recurrence. It was not just for myself - I too felt I must set an example for future generations.

For example, I have taken action against TMP Worldwide / (American owned) - one of the world’s leading recruitment advertising agencies. I was given a continuous contract of 10 years but when TMP took over the British company Austin Knight Ltd, the management (led by two Directors) decided arbitrarily that I had become incompetent overnight. This was after I had complained about being short staffed and leaderless (as the team Director had left under suspicious circumstances).

The management hit back - I was subjected to breach of contract, less favourable terms, demotion instead of promotion, segregation, humiliation, racial remarks, denial of sick entitlement despite being signed off by the doctors (when I had broken my arm). The list was endless. The company did attempt to settle out of court and offered me a little over £10,000. To me this was ‘peanuts’ - it did not compensate for what I had suffered.

When my case finally reached the Courts, I had already commenced my education for a law degree. Representing myself as a litigant in person with a McKenzie friend, I confronted the Directors at the Industrial Court hearing. Although they had admitted wrong doing by the law, the courts decided in favour of the company. My case had begun in 1999 and and my option was either to give up or move a higher court. I chose the latter, the matter is now with the European Court of Human Rights.
I am not discouraged by setbacks - I feel I must persist in my struggle for justice; I treat this whole affair as a game. Likewise, I urge our community to become active when their human rights are trampled upon.

The fight for justice must go on
All I want is to be treated equal to my fellow white citizens. If we are all equal, why do we need an institution like the Commission for Race Equality (CRE)? Clearly there are race inequalities in British society.

It was my mother who paved the way and I am now following in her footsteps and examining new avenues to deal with my case in the European Court of Justice. It is vital in the face of injustice that our community refuses to give in but takes courage to fight back. Sadly, my impressions of the Goans are not encouraging: they love to brag about what they possess, where they have travelled, whom they know, what sort of house they own - all peripheral matters. What they withhold are the many real problems they have, especially at work. Today, people who have worked for many years are being thrown out of their jobs or pushed into early retirement. Others are being cheated of their pensions, for example those who had worked for British companies in Kenya and made contributions, then moved to the UK.

The younger generation also have their share of problems. Although they have been educated in this country, not all can get jobs that match their qualifications. They may even be relegated to doing office chores. They are being denied promotion and are still finding it difficult to break through the glass ceiling and reach the boardroom levels, especially in the private sector. I am a citizen of the United Kingdom while my Grandparents have been Portuguese Citizens. We now have stronger legislation in the form of the Amended Race Relations Act to go by. The European Convention of Human Rights (under the Treaty of Rome, the Amsterdam Treaty, European Directive 2000/43/EC) is tough but the UK has not signed up to certain clauses such as Protocol 12 and thus the full force of the Convention stands diluted.

You need to know the fundamentals of the legal system. You can learn from what has been written. Read books, use the Internet for reference. Don’t hesitate to speak up candidly about your problem and related issues. I have lent a helping hand to some people and am prepared to help if I can. I have helped by interpreting the law in layman terms, as well as through the contacts that I have maintained through my professional career.

I work in Advertising Sales and further advancement is up to me. Today I live a contented life and never wonder about the “what if’s”. I also do martial arts and am training to be an instructor.

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