Sipho Moyo, the former Africa executive director of ONE. Picture: Twitter

London - Workers at a charity founded by U2 singer Bono have been subjected to a ‘toxic’ culture of bullying and abuse.

Bosses at the ONE charity have covered up the horrific allegations for years, but a major Mail on Sunday investigation has exposed a catalogue of humiliating incidents that has now sparked a multi-million-pound lawsuit.

In the worst case, a married woman says she felt pressured to have sex with an elderly Tanzanian MP. When she refused, she was demoted to receptionist and had her salary slashed, she claims. 

Taken together, the astonishing complaints depict an organisation driven by intimidation and contempt, with staff belittled and undermined, both in front of colleagues and in public.

The charity also failed to pay taxes – despite campaigning against tax evasion – and is alleged to have illegally employed foreign workers on tourist visas.

Bono on Saturday night said he was ‘deeply sorry’ for the situation, which he admitted had ‘gone badly wrong’. He said he was left ‘reeling and furious’ about the scale of the allegations and vowed to meet victims to apologise in person.

Much of the mistreatment is said to have been at the hands of Sipho Moyo, the former £173,000-a-year Africa executive director of ONE. The complaints include claims that she:

* Intimidated one member of staff into massaging her feet;

* Woke another worker at 1 am in South Africa and ordered her to sort out the air-conditioning in her hotel room – in Seattle;

* Invited colleagues to parties at her house, only to use them as wait staff, making one woman stand outside for up to seven hours mixing drinks;

* Ordered a worker to find her a greyhound puppy, then drive to another city to collect it.

Moyo, the organisation’s most senior African official from 2010 until 2015, hit back on Saturday night. She said she ‘vehemently denies’ the bullying claims and argues she is being smeared. She claims that other directors treated her ‘like their personal maid’ and abused her in public.

ONE, whose board of high-profile figures includes David Cameron and Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg, now admits there was ‘mistreatment and inaction’ by former managers.

The charity rushed out a public statement nine hours after this newspaper sent it a long list of allegations. Its current president, Gayle Smith, said she was ‘troubled’ by the claims, accepting there was ‘what I would characterise as bullying and belittling of staff’.

The claims, backed by witness statements and documentary evidence, are hugely embarrassing for an organisation that harnesses celebrities to campaign against corruption, sexism and ‘dirty money’.

‘The toxic environment was terrible, with staff treated so badly,’ said one former manager. ‘It was awful for an organisation that claims to fight for social justice, respect and equality. I had never seen anything like this.

‘This went on for years. It would never have been allowed to happen in London or Washington but we were just Africans. Their attitude was let them eat themselves.’

When a delegation was sent from London to dampen the disquiet, they told staff to rub a wooden elephant to channel ‘negative energies’. ‘This was the final insult,’ said one man. ‘It was really patronising. Did they think we were Africans so some voodoo would help?’

The scandal is another blow for the aid sector after revelations of sex parties and staff harassment at other major charities.

Angry ex-staff say their lives were left devastated after working in ONE’s ‘hostile environment’ – and that nothing was done about their claims until after they started complaining publicly on social media in November in the wake of Hollywood sex scandals.

Last week lawyers acting for seven of the former staff, dismayed by inaction over the complaints, launched a legal case demanding £3.6 million compensation for distress. They sent a letter seeking damages for ‘emotional, physical and psychological abuse’ under Moyo. Other staff said bullying continued for two years after she left.

The letter also alleges ‘wrongful and malicious mistreatment’ at the hands of Moyo, her former deputy director Nachilala Nkombo and Jane Ilori, a former human resources director, who they claim ignored their pleas for help.

Abuse and bullying led more than 20 staff to quit in five years, several saying they remain traumatised and in need of therapy. One British woman was treated for depression and her hair fell out due to stress.

The claims are a blow for Bono, who speaks about ‘representing the poorest and most vulnerable people’. He set up ONE in 2004 to raise awareness of poverty, backed by big aid charities. It has campaigned to write off Third World debt, has pushed anti-malaria campaigns and raised £360 million to fight HIV and AIDS through its RED offshoot.

Last night, the star said in response to the allegations: ‘I hate bullying, can’t stand it. The poorest people in the poorest places being bullied by their circumstance is the reason we set up ONE.’

The Mail on Sunday understands Mr Cameron was warned about the problems before joining the board three months ago, soon after the former employees started raising the matters on Twitter.

After being told the issue was in the past, he attended his first board meeting with Bono at Claridge’s hotel in London.

The Charity Commission, however, was only informed 11 days ago. A spokeswoman said they were working to ensure that staff are ‘properly protected’.

The issue started to emerge on November 7 last year when Idriss Nassah, a Malawian journalist, started tweeting about abuse and cover-ups during his year-long stint working in the communications department at ONE. Other former workers responded with similar complaints. ‘Don’t remind me of that hellhole… my 4 months felt like a long prison sentence,’ responded one.

After 17 people stepped forward, the group realised the scale of misery. ‘I thought my experiences were bad but the more I talked with the others, the more I realised these problems were deep-rooted in the organisation,’ said a former staffer.

The most serious allegation is that of the married woman in her mid-30s, who says she was demoted after refusing to sleep with a Tanzanian MP in his 60s. Her claim is backed by a colleague who said the traumatised woman told him: ‘My boss is pimping me off with a politician.’

However, Moyo told The Mail on Sunday that she ‘doesn’t recognise any element’ of that claim.

Other staff recall a fusillade of angry phone calls into the night and at weekends. ‘She would be screaming and shouting,’ said one assistant. ‘I stopped going to the movies or going out socially because the calls kept coming.’

Like others, she quit without having another job to go to. ‘You ended up blaming yourself like a rape victim,’ said one female manager. ‘I’ve been a victim of this and you keep wondering what you could have done differently. It was a different kind of abuse but it still crushes you emotionally.’

Several say they have been left traumatised, lacking confidence and unable to hold down jobs, so want cash to fund therapy.

Staff allege they were forced to do endless menial tasks including, in one case, massaging Moyo’s feet. ‘I did not want to be shouted at again so if massaging her feet meant no shouting, then I did that,’ said the woman. Moyo denies the claim.

Another told of being ordered to fix the heating at a conference Moyo was attending abroad, despite being in South Africa – only to eventually discover that Moyo was sitting next to the event organiser. ‘It was so humiliating,’ she said.

Several disclosed they had to spend nights serving food and drink at Moyo’s parties. Moyo insists they were invited as guests, but one email to staff tells them not to ‘interact’ with real guests. ‘I thought I was invited to a dinner party,’ said one executive. ‘But I was made to stand outside in heels for six or seven hours as a waitress. I did not even know how to mix drinks. I don’t drink – it’s against my religion.’

Moyo insisted last night she was tough but fair. ‘I treated ONE staff like my family,’ she said. ‘I demanded high standards but never treated people in a disrespectful form.’ She believes she is being ‘framed’ for wider failings in ONE to make everything look like the fault of Africans, claiming: ‘Being an African at ONE is to be inferior.’

Moyo – who went on to be chief of staff for the president of the African Development Bank – also confirmed that ONE did not pay tax on its employees’ salaries, saying it was a decision taken in Washington.

A former member of staff revealed ONE was not registered in South Africa, which meant payroll taxes were ignored, and staff struggled to fix pensions, buy homes or lease cars as ‘you need tax clearance to do anything’. Another ex-staffer said: ‘I was paid from an American bank account and no taxes were taken from my salary.’

The arrangement also meant employees were flouting the law by working under visas that said they were tourists.

One woman told of crossing the border into Zimbabwe every three months to renew her documents.

ONE says it was acting as a nonresident taxpayer at the time.

Staff fury over the bullying is compounded by claims it was ignored despite repeated complaints to senior figures in London and Washington. ‘Image is everything to ONE,’ said one woman. An email sent to trustees in February 2015 by a departing manager highlighted a workplace that was ‘toxic, unprofessional and dominated by fear, intimidation and bullying’.

Among those receiving the email was Bono’s assistant, but sources claim the star is ‘furious’ the complaint was not passed on to him.

Former staff say high turnover and cases taken to arbitration should have rung alarm bells.

Three days after Nassah mentioned the issues, ONE’s general counsel Brian Healy sent a circular claiming the charity did not tolerate ‘any sort of harassing, bullying or discriminatory behaviour’.

One week later, an official from ONE’s Washington office flew to meet the complainants in Johannesburg. A former manager broke down in tears entering the office, so strong were the bad memories. This is when the former staff were urged to rub the wooden elephant.

In January, Gayle Smith, a former aide to Barack Obama who became ONE’s president two years ago, said she was ‘appalled’ by the allegations and admitted ‘mistreatment and inaction’ by former management.

An internal inquiry accepted there was ‘unprofessional conduct’ and a ‘wholly inadequate’ response. But the former employees were only offered careers advice.

Following The Mail on Sunday approach, Ms Smith insisted a new management team set up an independent inquiry as soon as the allegations surfaced last November.

But the ex-staff behind the legal claim said: ‘ONE is only making a public admission after becoming aware of The Mail on Sunday investigation – just like they only took any action when we went public about their abuse and bullying on social media.

‘It is all about ONE trying to look good, but never sincerely addressing and compensating the victims of its years of rampant abuse.’

Ms Nkombo is now Zambia country director for WWF. The wildlife charity said references were checked before her appointment and ‘no allegations came to light’.

She was unavailable for comment on Saturday night.

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