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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 March 2019

Agent of Qatar royals sent ‘alarming’ messages to ex-staff over employment lawsuit

A former trainer, bodyguard and tutor are suing the sister of the Qatar emir and her husband for forcing them to work 100s of hours unpaid

Sister of the Emir of Qatar Sheikha Al Mayassa Hamad Al Thani is facing a lawsuit for alleged mistreatment of former employees. AP
Sister of the Emir of Qatar Sheikha Al Mayassa Hamad Al Thani is facing a lawsuit for alleged mistreatment of former employees. AP

An agent for a Qatari Royal couple sent an “alarming” message to a former staff member who accuses them of failing to pay fair wages, according to lawyers who say the email raised concerns they were trying to discourage other disgruntled workers from making claims.

In a new court filing, the lawyers accused Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the sister of Qatar’s ruling emir, and her husband of “prior retaliation”.

It marks an embarrassing new twist in a case that has already provoked allegations of extortion and hints of family secrets being exposed.

Lawyers for both sides accuse each other of unfair tactics after three former employees claimed they were forced to work up to 100 hours a week without overtime pay.

Their lawsuit pits one of the world’s wealthiest families against their former personal trainer, a tutor and a bodyguard who allege they were required at times to work seven days a week and to stay awake until the couple’s four children went to bed.

The case, brought in a New York court, claims they often made to work overtime without extra pay when travelling on luxury trips to Italy, Greece and Croatia.

Lawyers for the trio have said they believe other workers may also have legitimate claims and want to expand the case into a class action suit.

Last week, Ariadne Panagopoulou, their lawyer, filed details of a message sent by Helen von Mallinckrodt to Graham Bancroft, who worked as a personal trainer for the couple until October.

“The contents of the communication were alarming; Ms Mallinckrodt accused Bancroft that ‘the case is all over the internet thanks to you… I hope someone has informed you what a court case means,” reads her submission, which included a screen-grab of the email.

The claims have brought fresh examination of the Al Thanis’ glittering New York lifestyle, where they live in one of Manhattan’s grandest homes. Their Upper East Side residence is comprised of two neighbouring townhouses knocked into one, and Qatar recently purchased a third home to be used as the servants quarters.

Sheikha Al Mayassa is chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority and is reported to control a $1 billion a year purchasing budget, making her one of the most powerful figures in the art world.

She and her husband face allegations that they broke New York and US employment laws.

“The workers were required to sign contracts, stating that ‘while travelling with the principal (i.e. the family), days off will not be granted. During these times, all staff is required to be on duty at all times without extra pay,’” reads the suit.

“That provision is illegal under state and federal labour laws.”

They deny the claims against them and also say they are protected by diplomatic immunity, according to court documents.

In a further sign of ill will between the parties, their lawyers have asked the plaintiffs to cease all contact with other employees of the Royal couple.

They wrote to Judge Paul Oetken alerting him to a text message sent by Benjamin Boyd, who worked briefly as a tutor to the couple’s children. In it, he informed “Quinta” – a cleaner and nanny – that she may be entitled to more than $100,000 as “someone being cheated out of wages”.

He also included a link to a recent story published by The National describing the lawsuit, according to screen grabs filed with the court.

Allan Bloom, counsel for the defendants, said Mr Boyd had “circumvented” the usual judicial process for alerting potential members of a collective action and asked the court to order the plaintiffs to “cease and desist from all communications with putative collective members”.

He added in a footnote that it appeared to be part of a coordinated attempt at extorting millions of dollars by threatening to “disclose torrid (not to mention, false) secrets about the family”.

In response, Mr Boyd insisted he was only communicating the state of the case as he understood it to another employee who had complained of working long hours – from dawn until late at night.

“I have no idea how third parties got hold of my private text message communications with Quinta,” he added in a signed declaration.

His lawyer, Ms Panagopoulou, said that taken together it suggested the defendants were trying to keep other employees in the dark about the court case.

“Due to these undisputed and documented instances of prior retaliation, and the unexplained method upon which Ms Mallinckrodt obtained private communications between Boyd and Quinta, we have serious concerns as to whether defendants are genuinely concerned about the integrity of the collective action procedure, as opposed to simply looking for a backdoor to ensure that other current and former employees do not become aware and do not join this lawsuit,” she wrote.

The case comes as a 79-year-old man who claims he was physically and racially abused by a Qatari diplomat while working at the country's embassy in London, prepares for his day in court.

Somali-born Mohamoud Ahmed, who worked as a receptionist at the embassy for more than 20 years before being dismissed at the age of in 2013, will have his case heard next week.

Updated: March 5, 2019 12:12 PM

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