Working like a Slave for 20 years? You are fired! 1

Working like a Slave for 20 years? You are fired!

  1. In a letter to Envoy Air management dated August 25, 2021, New York attorney Lee Seham takes Envoy Air, an Affiliate with American Airlines to task for terminating three employees for referring to themselves as “slaves” and quoting a line from the Jackie Chan movie Rush Hour as a means of explaining that the reference was not intended to offend others. 
  2. The three employees – Losaolima Fonokalafi, Faye Tuala, and Asefash Asfaha – each have over twenty (20) years of seniority.  They are, respectively, immigrants from Tonga, Samoa, and Eritrea (Africa) and were employed by Envoy as Inventory Control Specialists.
  3. Envoy found cause to terminate Ms. Fonokalafi because, in response to a comment by an aircraft mechanic that she was working too hard, she agreed that she and her co-worker’s worked like “slaves.”

The following week, a white co-worker confronted Ms. Fonokalafi about her comment and asserted that “Black lives matter.”  Ms. Asfaha – an African-American born in Eritrea – came to her colleague’s defense by explaining that Ms. Fonokalafi was from Tonga and had a different life experience from her white accuser. 

Ms. Asfaha compared to a colleague to the innocent Chinese police detective in a hit movie who inadvertently made an offensive remark in a bar patronized exclusively African-Americans, and appealed to Ms. Tuala for help in recalling the movie and the scene.  Ms. Tuala supplied the movie name and relevant quote to assist Ms. Asfaha in explaining Ms. Fonokalafi’s innocence.

Envoy terminated Ms. Fonokalafi and Ms. Tuala for allegedly making an improper “slave” reference and because they “quoted movie lines” that were offensive.  Envoy terminated Ms. Asfaha for allegedly quoting the same movie lines.

Mr. Seham’s August 25 letter provided Envoy with precedent from the National Labor Relations Board held that an employee has a right under federal labor law to articulate complaints concerning her working conditions using such language.  He also argued: 

Every race has been enslaved and has enslaved others.  Our republic’s first international conflict was in response to African pirates who had enslaved over a million European and white American sailors.  In the English language, the term “working like a slave” or “wage slave” is a common idiomatic expression meaning nothing more than the individual is working hard for paltry compensation. 

Seham further argued that terminating life-long employees for a reference to a popular movie that grossed over $245 million worldwide could not be justified, particularly when the purpose of the reference was not to offend but to promote understanding.  Moreover, the only African-American present at the time was Ms. Asfaha, whom Envoy terminated.

On August 30, Envoy responded to Mr. Seham that it was “working on collecting data for this case….”

Termination letters and August 25 letter

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