Professor accused of treating PhD students like slaves wins £15,000 payout

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Prof Shuang Cang from Northumbria University was investigated for modern day slavery offences - Alphotographic/iStock Unreleased
Prof Shuang Cang from Northumbria University was investigated for modern day slavery offences - Alphotographic/iStock Unreleased

A professor accused of treating a pair of PhD students like slaves by asking them to do her gardening, redecorate her home and go underwear shopping has won a £15,000 payout after a tribunal ruled she was wrongly sacked.

Prof Shuang Cang from Northumbria University was investigated by police for modern day slavery offences after two postgraduate students alleged they were “just servants to her”.

The PhD students, from China, claimed Prof Cang forced them to cut down trees in her garden, move heavy furniture, dispose of her rubbish and pay for meals, an employment tribunal heard.

Chinese-born Prof Cang, 59, who has worked in the UK for 30 years, was also accused of demanding the pair be available to her 12 hours a day to run errands.

The students, both in their 30s, said they feared they would not be awarded their doctorates if they did not comply with the academic's demands. One of the students said it was Chinese culture to “do what teachers say”.

‘Collaborated attack’

During the lengthy police investigation, Prof Cang denied the allegations or insisted they were exaggerated in what she claimed was a “collaborated attack” against her.

Although detectives dropped their slavery investigation into her, the “excellent” and “impressive” professor was sacked by the university for gross misconduct.

Now, the tribunal has ruled that Prof Cang was wrongfully dismissed with a judge saying the panel couldn’t be sure the accusations were true.

The tribunal, in Newcastle, heard that Prof Cang joined the university’s faculty of business and law on a salary of £63,000 from Bournemouth University in February 2018.

Her Chinese PhD students both claim they were “coerced ” to relocate from Bournemouth, with the threat of them failing their PhD.

One student, named only as “ZW”, was a 34-year-old man from Shanghai, while the other, “DC”, was a married woman in her 30s.

Allegations listed in a tribunal report included: “Oppression and exploitation of students by forcing them to carry out physical work in her house such as furniture moving, garbage disposal, garden clearance, cleaning and painting rooms.”

The report also said: “Prof Cang shouts and yells at [DC] in public and, despite DC saying she felt uncomfortable, had made her go on a shopping trip to buy underwear including helping Prof Cang to undress and expressing an opinion on the underwear she was trying on.”

But Prof Cang, who was “visibly shocked” when she was arrested, said the allegations were unfounded and that she enjoyed good relationships with the pair and considered them “like her own children”.

She said the only chores she could remember them doing was the washing up and half an hour’s worth of ironing.

Students may have had ulterior motive

The tribunal also heard there were “serious concerns” that ZW had committed plagiarism and he cannot now be found, while DC may have had a “motive to lie or exaggerate” to obtain an extension of time granted to study in the UK.

Tudor Garnon, the employment judge, said he could not be sure the allegations were true and criticised university academics Prof John Wilson, for his investigation, and Prof John Woodward for the disciplinary hearing he chaired.

Judge Garnon said: “There are huge gaps in the questioning of the students and areas of their evidence which needed to be investigated further to look for real corroboration or the lack of it.

“Based on what we know now and with the obvious gaps in the questioning of ZW and DC, we are not satisfied the university has shown the serious allegations of Prof Cang taking advantage of them to be more likely than not to have happened."

Prof Cang won £14,884 for wrongful dismissal, £2,234 for untaken annual leave, and £30.34 for unpaid expenses.

She lost claims of discrimination and harassment based on race and must pay a £1,000 deposit to the university.

A spokesman for Northumbria University said: "This case involved the investigation into serious allegations against a former member of staff. The Employment Tribunal could not be satisfied, on the balance of probability, that the most serious allegations made against Shuang Cang were true.

"It therefore found that Ms Cang was entitled to be paid in respect of her notice period when her employment was terminated.

"The University respects the Tribunal's decision, which also included the dismissal of Ms Cang's complaints of race discrimination and harassment.”

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