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Madonna sued by charity workers over scrapped Malawi school


Raising Malawi's decision to drop plans for $15m elite academy for girls cost workers their jobs, claims lawyer

By David Smith

March 28, 2011 / The Guardian

Eight charity workers in Malawi are suing Madonna after the collapse of her $15m (£9.4m) academy for girls cost them their jobs. The employees' lawyer said they are taking the US singer to court for unfair dismissal and non-payment of benefits.

The board of Raising Malawi was ousted after failing to start the building of an elite girls' school amid allegations of financial mismanagement, including lavish spending on offices, cars and golf membership.

Madonna, who adopted a boy and a girl from the southern African country, loaned $11m (£6.9m) to the charity and now sits on the board. The charity workers' lawyer, Mzondi Chirambo, said the singer had 14 days to respond to their concerns.

"Their employment was terminated by the trustees of Raising Malawi Academy for Girls ostensibly following the change of plan not to build the school as planned," he told Reuters news agency. "My clients are also being forced to sign a discriminatory termination agreement before they are paid their benefits."

The papers were filed with Malawi's industrial court, which handles employment disputes. Madonna's US representative was not immediately available for comment, but there were reports that the singer is considering filing a counter-suit.

Chirambo said some of the workers he represented were directly connected to the school project, while others taught Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism of which Madonna, 52, is a devotee.

The group includes Dr Anjimile Oponyo, who had been recruited to head the school. An audit by the Global Philanthropy Group, brought in by Madonna to rescue the charity, reportedly said of Oponyo: "Her charisma masks a lack of substantive knowledge of the practical application of educational development, and her weak management skills are a major contributor to the current financial and programmatic chaos."

The school was to take 500 girls and prepare them as female leaders of the future. When news of its demise emerged two months ago, the Malawian government expressed concern and there was anger among villagers who sacrificed their homes to make way for the 47.4-hectare (117-acre) site near the capital, Lilongwe.

It was reported by the New York Times last week that $3.8m (£2.4m) had been spent on the abortive project. The charity's executive director, Philippe van den Bossche, the boyfriend of Madonna's former personal trainer, left in October amid criticism of his management style and cost overruns.

2011 Mar 28