Ambulance driver said boss was racist for saying 'ten a penny' phrase

Black ambulance driver who sued his employers claiming the phrase ‘ten a penny’ was ‘racist’ and linked to slavery loses discrimination claim

  • A black ambulance driver accused his boss of racism after saying ‘ten a penny’
  • Matthew Johnson said the phrase said by Dan Price has ‘origins in slave trade’
  • Judge dismissed the case, Mr Johnson was ordered to pay £1,200 of DHL’s costs

A black ambulance driver who sued for racism after his boss used the phrase ‘ten a penny’ has had his case thrown out by a judge.

DHL boss Dan Price used the phrase to Matthew Johnson after the employee told him he was going on a month-long honeymoon just a month after joining the company.

An employment tribunal was told that Mr Price made the remark to suggest that ambulance drivers like Mr Johnson were easy to find.

However Mr Johnson took his employers to a tribunal, claiming the common idiom originates from the slave trade and that he was discriminated against.

A judge ruled that none of the ‘highly skilled’ driver’s bosses had any idea the phrase was potentially connected to slavery.

Matthew Johnson, who worked as an ambulance driver employed by DHL (stock image), claimed that his boss Dan Price using the phrase ‘ten a penny’ was racist

The Watford tribunal heard that Mr Johnson started work at the company in March 2018.

The following month he had a conversation with Mr Price informing him of his upcoming honeymoon.

Mr Price, who is white, then said words to the effect that he ‘would not have employed’ Mr Johnson if he had known this and used the expression ‘ten a penny’ to refer to him.

Mr Johnson complained that he this phrase was ‘a reference to slavery’.

However, Mr Price claimed that he used this phrase with everyone and was nothing to do with Mr Johnson being black.

‘(Mr Johnson) says that the expression ’10 a penny’ is a racist expression with its origins within the slave trade,’ the tribunal heard.

‘(DHL) submitted that the general understanding of the expression does not have any racial connection but refers to something that is common or easily available and the likely meaning of the above expression, if made, was that ambulance drivers with (Mr Johnson’s) experience and skills were easy for (DHL) to find.

‘(Mr Johnson) alleges that he did not like the remark and that he regarded it, at the time it was said, as racist. Specifically that he regarded it as a reference to slavery.’

Following this incident, the tribunal heard Mr Price and another senior figure told Mr Johnson that he couldn’t park his car, a Porsche, across two parking spaces in the company car park.

The tribunal heard that Mr Price then approached the car and said words to the effect that Mr Johnson ‘must be a drug dealer to be able to afford a car like that’.

The hearing was told that the driver was later involved in a number of incidents, involving an accident with a stretcher and a car colliding with an ambulance.

On a visit to a patient’s home, an incident with a wheelchair resulted in a colleague being concussed and Mr Johnson was disciplined, the tribunal was told.

In January 2020 Mr Johnson issued a grievance about his treatment complaining that he had been discriminated against in relation to the first two incidents by being drug tested by the company twice when neither of his crew-mates had been – when they had been the ones ‘responsible’.

While still an employee the ambulance driver took his employers to the tribunal claiming racial discrimination, harassment and victimisation. He has since left the company.

The judge was not persuaded that the DHL boss might have been aware of the (alleged) connection the phrase has to to slavery

In relation to the ‘ten a penny’ remark, Employment Judge Paddy Quill said that the evidence suggested Mr Price had used the expression many times to many different employees, at least some of whom were white.

He added that Mr Johnson’s opinion about the history of the expression were ‘not sufficient to persuade’ him that Mr Price was aware of the alleged connection.

He said: ‘The context of (the remark) was that Mr Johnson was going to be absent for around four weeks or so.

‘On Mr Johnson’s account (which we accept) that displeased Mr Price and Mr Price suggested he would have hired another employee instead.

‘Mr Johnson has not proven that he meant another black employee, and he has not proved that Mr Price was any more likely to respond with these words to Mr Johnson as a black employee than had a white employee informed him of a four-week absence for honeymoon shortly after commencing work.’

Regarding Mr Johnson’s claims of racial harassment by drug tests, Judge Quill added: ‘Mr Johnson has not convinced us that [DHL]’s conduct was related to race.’

In dismissing the case, Mr Johnson was ordered by the tribunal to pay £1200 toward’s DHL’s costs.

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