————– I took FSFE to court. This is my story –––––
Soon after the first lockdown in Berlin this year I filed a public case in the Berlin Tribunal of Labour Court against the president of Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), Matthias Kirschner, for workplace bullying. Why? A female colleague and me had dared to discuss wage transparency and gender pay gap in the office. Apparently it is common in Germany that this gap exceeds 20%, but we both felt secure that the free software movement is progressive, and cares about being inclusive and equal opportunities oriented. Unfortunately we miscalculated – our boss Matthias was beyond furious. After that office meeting, he told my colleague “there will be consequences”. Our efforts coincided with the resignation of Richard Stallman from the US-based sister organisation of FSFE due to careless revictimisation of female victims of sexual abuse- another gender discrimination issue in our community that would cause the situation in our office to deteriorate quickly. In its reluctant press release on this pivotal change in leadership in the largest free software organisation in the world, the FSFE had opted to honour Stallman for his undeniably long service and overlook the social issues underlying the change – something with which I expressed dissatisfaction, and not without support from colleagues. It led to immediate retribution. I was ordered to rewrite the text and was warned that I had “three hours to do it. Whether we will publish it or not, is going to be my [Matthias', my rem.] decision, not yours”. Free software is in most of our digital infrastructure, and I care a lot about inclusivity in this community to ensure that our most basic tools can be developed by everyone's perspectives for everyone's needs, so I rewrote our announcement. But not only was it never published – it was not even honoured with his feedback. My aforementioned female colleague, who had also backed me up, was fired just a few days later. Personally, I was subjected to a good amount of pressure and strategic intrigues. I was given tasks irrelevant to my job description and far below my qualifications. I was degraded both as a professional and due to who I am through instructions such as “translate this [text] in your mother tongue, so you can understand better”. I was belligerently micromanaged and questioned through rebukes like “why do you refer to dates in this format and not in that format”, while there is no office policy on following a particular date standard. I was even told some of the things I was working on were bullshit! For 3 months I was pushing for time to launch a newsletter survey as an attempt to make qualitative improvements, but my effort was labelled as “not necessary”. I was regularly nagged, and prevented from doing the work I was hired for. In front of my colleagues I was tasked with one thing and in private I was asked not to do it and have it replaced with another, and then in front of others asked about the progress on the previous. Matthias was manufacturing the false impression I wasn't doing my work, while at the same time calling and texting my private phone number in obscure hours (such as 5:00AM or 22:00PM) with work orders and topics. Unlike other colleagues, I had a hard time receiving time off for the extra days I worked on, and was prevented from taking any of my annual holidays. I suspected Matthias was preparing to fire me, and indeed I was on a clock. He needed to make sure he was re-elected FSFE president before he could get rid of me. It would have damaged his chances to have fired all the full-time women in the office in the two months leading up to the elections – an unnecessary risk – but once approved he would have another two years' free reign. At this time my friends were starting to worry – the psychological pressure and lack of enough time off caused my condition was decline. I had to take a sick leave. Certain that I was about to get fired, my friends encouraged me to seek legal counsel, if so only to keep myself focussed on constructive tasks. Immediately after my sick leave announcement, Matthias fired me over the phone on a Friday night, and threatened me to immediately go to the office to hand over work-related items. Appearing in the office during a sick leave is illegal in Germany, so I refused. A weekend of non-stop calls followed, including from hidden phone numbers. He even texted telling me I should answer my phone, for my own better. Even after my lawyer warned him to terminate all attempts to communicate with me and send someone else to pick up my work laptop, he came in person to my house, and was very irritated that I was not alone. Eventually, of course, my sick leave ended, I was fired, and there was a global pandemic with follow-on lockdowns. It was against this background that I filed a complaint in the Anti-Discrimination Commission in Germany and I filed a case against him in court for work-place bullying. Disappointingly, it turned out, the Commission does not have much legal authority for actions, so I proceeded further only with the bullying case. During the process, one curious clue popped up. In one of the publicly available answers to the court he argued I had no reason to doubt a gender pay gap, because you see, there was this male trainee that was having a lower pay than me. But, not only does the FSFE rate women salaries lower, but also foreigners. So, if you happen to be a foreign woman – well, tough luck. At the same time they are proudly proclaiming the office “international” and “inclusive” when pursuing donor relations or in relations to the public. The court process was taxing. The FSFE lawyer made up easily disprovable slanders against me – and I say “easily” because their charges were demonstrably false, but of course finding evidence that is also admissible in the conservative German court system did not do much good for my stress levels over summer. They disrespected the court by not submitting papers on time, and they refused to answer my allegations, opting instead to portray me as a disobedient, sexist, racist, incompetent belligerent. Why did they give such a person a permanent contract after a six month probation period? Well, magnanimously they apparently were afraid that I would otherwise be disappointed. Now, I finally received the Labour court's verdict some days ago. The court basically says that even though they recognise my claims as true I do not qualify for financial remuneration because I did not suffer for at least a year and I did not end up having major psychological damage of my identity. I was accused by the FSFE that my claim was driven by a desire for a quick financial gain. Unfortunately, the German law foresees only monetary and no other type of compensation. However, I was given the opportunity in court to ask for something else. I asked for an apology and the president of the FSFE refused. Why am I writing all this? Because I want to expose the hypocrisy and double standards in FSFE leadership. How the organisation “promoting” transparency, equality and inclusivity treats employees and more specifically women. How donations are spent on nurturing Matthias' grandiosity. Because, let's be honest, to how many male employees' homes would he appear uninvited after being cautioned by a lawyer not to do so? I remain committed to open infrastructure and free software, and I know the community extends beyond the FSFE Berlin office, where Matthias reigns supreme with the support of his FSFE Board employees. I of course also hope that the advocacy arm of the European free software movement will eventually also reflect the diversity, friendship and equality that I continue to find in the movement as such. Finally, I want to thank those of my hacker friends who showed up in person at my final court hearing and those whose priceless support remained in spite of physical distance. Your presence made it so much more bearable, and reminded me that it is not the sour apples of the FSFE offices that make our community, but the many people around them who continue to commit themselves and their skills to a better tomorrow. Short correction to my story and a lesson not to rely too much on machine translation: It was brought to my attention that my interpretation of the court ruling may have been optimistic. This is due to relying on machine translation. I understood the verdict as agreeing with me on the facts, but not on the rules. I feel it is my duty to clarify this mistake and I want to stress that it was never my intention to mislead anyone. Whilst translations may be faulty, they are a small part of my story and my story still stands.