Madonna sued by staff after dropping plan for girls' school in Malawi

London Evening Standard, UK/March 28, 2011

Madonna is being sued by eight members of staff who lost their jobs when she scrapped proposals to build an elite girls' school in Malawi.

The singer abandoned plans for the school, which she had planned as a "gift" for the country where she adopted two of her children, after concerns about a lack of progress.

Workers' lawyer Mzondi Chirambo told the Standard she now has 14 days to respond to the action by the disgruntled staff who have filed court papers alleging unfair dismissal and non-payment of benefits.

However, he predicted a tough fight as he believes Madonna is preparing her own legal action.

Among workers suing the pop star is Dr Anjimile Oponyo, head of the £10? million Raising Malawi Academy, who was sacked amid allegations of lavish spending on office space, cars and golf membership.

The action comes two months after Madonna announced she was abandoning her dream. The school was to take in 500 girls and prepare them as women leaders of the future.

When the plans were scrapped Trevor Neilson, a philanthropic adviser hired by Madonna, said: "Despite $3.8?million having been spent by the previous management team, the project has not broken ground, there was no title to the land and there was, overall, a startling lack of accountability on the part of the management team in Malawi and the management team in the US.

"We have yet to determine exactly what happened to all of that $3.8? million. We have not accounted for all the funds that were used."

Dr Oponyo was dismissed along with the boyfriend of Madonna's former personal trainer, the charity's executive director Philippe van den Bossche, after auditors probing the spending of £3?million before even a single brick of the building had been laid highlighted lavish expenditure.

Dr Oponyo, whose sister is the vice-president of Malawi, was headhunted from a job with the World Bank by Madonna and asked to head the ambitious academy project. She and Mr van den Bossche declined to comment on the matter after signing confidentiality agreements with the singer. Mr Chirambo said: "My clients claim there has been discrimination in the way in which they have been dealt with, that they have not all been treated in an equal fashion.

"They are also being forced to sign a discriminatory termination agreement before they are paid benefits."

The scrapping of the school plans, which had been backed by Tom Cruise and other figures from Hollywood and the Kabbalah movement, triggered anger among villagers who had surrendered their homes to make way for the 117-acre site near the capital Lilongwe.

Scores of families had reluctantly moved from the village of Chinkhota in the hope that wealth and jobs would flow from the construction.

Village leader Chief Chinkhota said: "I don't know what to tell my people for it was me who convinced them to give up their land.

"Now they think I fooled them. Maybe I just give the land back to the owners. But my hands are tied since we gave the land to the government and that in turn gave it to Madonna. We don't know what to do."

Madonna has poured millions into Malawi through her charity in recent years after the controversial adoption from the country of her two youngest children David and Mercy.

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