"The past three years have been a living hell"
Renowned chef Aktar Islam has opened up on his three years of hell after a former employee claimed he unfairly fired her when she told him she was pregnant.
He revealed he has spent £51,000 defending himself against the “utterly disgusting and disgraceful lie”.
Mr Islam made the revelation after he won an employment tribunal in September 2021 after general manager Sara Cowie claimed he fired her at his former restaurant Legna in January 2019.
Mr Islam told the tribunal that Ms Cowie was performing poorly in the role but continued to employ her up to the end of her three-month probation.
He said he only did this because of a close friendship with her partner.
The Employment Tribunal Decision says:
“The claimant’s claim against the first respondent that she was unfairly dismissed under s 99 Employment Rights Act 1996 is not well-founded and is dismissed.
“The claimant’s claim against the first and second respondents that she was discriminated against in relation to her pregnancy under s 18 Equality Act2010 is unsuccessful and is dismissed.”
Mr Islam told Birmingham Mail:
“The past three years have been a living hell trying to fight this utterly disgraceful lie.
“I have spent £51,000 from my own pocket himself defending myself.
“It has caused me tremendous financial, mental and emotional strain.
“I just feel sheer relief that is over, but I am so angry that this person chose to use her womanhood as a weapon to extort money from me.
“My businesses have been built on my name, and this woman was trying not only to take money from me but, more damagingly, take away my reputation too.
“To be accused of something as disgusting as discrimination against a pregnant individual is hurtful as I am a parent myself and employ many parents that I have supported throughout maternity and paternity.
“I have also promoted a female employee who was pregnant to claim that I would want to sack someone just on this basis is horrifying to me.
“What adds to my pain is that I employed Ms Cowie because I was friends with her partner. I really can’t understand why this lie continued for so long.”
Mr Islam first employed Ms Cowie to work at Legna in October 2018.
He continued: “It was very clear to me and other managers that Ms Cowie’s job performance was poor, but because of my friendship with Mr Ternent, I decided not to let her go immediately and keep her on over Christmas so she wouldn’t need to worry about a job.
“Instead, I verbally explained to her in December that I would keep her on until the end of her probation period at the end of January.”
Mr Islam revealed he placed adverts for her job role on job sites before she came to him. Ms Cowie then revealed she was “one to two weeks late on her period”.
A few days before Ms Cowie’s formal dismissal, she confirmed her pregnancy in writing.
The job adverts proved irrefutable tribunal evidence that Ms Cowie had not been unfairly fired due to her pregnancy.
The chef said: “I started advertising for her role in late 2018 before even she knew she was pregnant, so when she came to me with her news, we both already knew the job was ending.
“I have never had any staff member come to me so early in their pregnancy.”
He said Ms Cowie was offered three alternative roles within the company, but she chose not to find out more about them.
Instead, she contacted the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and hired a solicitor.
Within 48 hours of her probation meeting ending, she drafted a statement.
Mr Islam said: “I had verbally told her before she revealed she was pregnant that it was not working out, but thankfully I had the evidence to back that up – as I had started advertising for her job – weeks before she was pregnant.
“When I got the ACAS letter, I felt I had been punched in the face. I was totally shell shocked.”
Ms Cowie initially requested £35,000 in compensation for unfair dismissal and discrimination.
Mr Islam continued: “I was getting numerous emails asking if I would settle out of courts and pay the £35k.
“They saw me as a cash cow – because I would be worried about my reputation, and the legal bills in defending yourself in court is always more than settling out of court.
“But for me, it was the principle of the matter – that this person thought it was okay to do this.
“The mental impact on myself and my team has been immense – particularly as many of my staff were friendly with Ms Cowie and Mr Ternent.
“Birmingham’s hospitality scene is a very tight-knit and supportive community so this fracture has been hellish.
“My friends and family were supportive, but it was embarrassing to know people might be questioning my behaviour – whether I was capable of doing what I had been accused of.”
Mr Islam closed Legna in December 2020 but has two other restaurants in Birmingham, Opheem and Pulperia.
He won a Michelin star for Opheem in 2019 but he could not fully enjoy the achievement due to the ordeal.
“Throughout this, I’ve had to clear my name.
“It’s just heartbreaking that the money I’ve spent on my defence would have been of great help considering what the hospitality sector has had to endure over the last eighteen months.
“The money is the equivalent of one year’s rent for one of the restaurants or a year’s salary for two trainee chefs.”
Jamie Brown, Partner at Wosskow Brown Solicitors, said:
“We are pleased to see the court dismiss claims against our client for both discrimination and unfair dismissal.
“The termination of employment is always a last resort, but, in this case, our client felt strongly that the allegations were unfounded.
“We are proud that we have successfully defended these wrongful claims and thank the Employment Tribunal for their equitable judgement.
“We would like to wish Aktar every success for his future business endeavours.”