A Facebook post about an unpleasant interview and work trial experience sparked an explosion of complaints alleging bullying and denial of leave at a well-known Christchurch cafe. Reporter JONNY EDWARDS explores mistreatment in the hospitality industry and asks what stops workers from speaking up.
When University of Canterbury student Levi Painter saw a job advertised for High St cafe C1 Espresso, she felt compelled to warn others about her experience.
Her treatment by owner Sam Crofskey in her job interview for the Christchurch establishment, including being asked if she had depression or anxiety, made her feel “uncomfortable”. She also found irregularities in the contract, such as only being allowed 20-minute breaks for eight-hour shifts.
Painter posted on the university’s online student noticeboard last week and soon realised she was one of the lucky ones who “got out early”.
The post attracted more than 1000 comments within 24 hours, many of which were from former staff and interviewees alleging experiences of bullying, not being allowed required breaks and being discouraged from taking sick days and leave.
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Ex-workers spoke publicly about their experiences allegedly being punished for not saying hello to Crofskey, despite him not acknowledging them, and being berated constantly. They claimed Crofskey instilled an atmosphere of fear and surveillance in which staff were afraid to raise concerns.
Painter was “blown away”.
“I had no idea at all that so many people were affected by just one cafe. I didn’t realise the severity of the situation.”
Crofskey argued the claims were mostly unsubstantiated and said he was happy to address concerns through the “appropriate channels”.
Ex-employees soon began speaking to unions and exploring legal action.
Within four days Crofskey announced he was taking a “long break” to take professional advice on workplace culture and assess his “fit in the company”.
Until that process is finished, he will not speak to media.
The problem with speaking up
That it was Painter’s post sparking this wave of events was almost a fluke.
Emails to Stuff from more than 70 people who either worked or interviewed at the cafe reveal the alleged treatment from Crofskey stretches back more than a decade.
However, it was never addressed publicly.
Songwriter Nadia Reid worked at the café back in 2009 and received what she described as similar “abuse”, although she believed Crofskey’s attitude towards her softened slightly upon her gaining some status as a musician.
Reid became frustrated when hearing a talkback radio presenter last week grilling Painter for not speaking up earlier.
“In cases of bullying that’s the worst thing you can ask.
“I did not think for a millisecond that I had any right to do anything about it. Sam was so powerful . . . You wanted him to like you.”
Buckett Law employment relations specialist Tori McGaugh says the experiences of staff at C1 Espresso are not a “one-off”.
The mixture of factors leading to issues not being raised by staff is complicated, but the place to start is looking at who is often hired in the industry, she says.
“Many of them are young women who might be afraid to speak up and either not know their rights, or can’t afford to go through the processes to enforce them.”
Migrant workers are particularly at risk of exploitation, she says.
A 2015 government report shows 34 per cent of working international students are doing so in hospitality. The report states exploitative practices in the industry are a “significant concern”.
A 2016 study by Auckland University management and international business professor Christina Stringer found many migrant employees were paid less than minimum wage, including one who worked 90 hours a week, but was only paid for 45.
Often international workers are not aware of the appropriate avenues for complaints, or they have work visas which are tied to their employment, creating further barriers to raising issues, she says.
Unite Union national secretary Gerard Hehir says the industry employs many young workers who employees feel they can take advantage of.
“For example if they are living at home, employers feel it doesn’t matter if they can’t get a decent amount of hours.”
While these workers are occasionally brave enough to call the union with their concerns, they are usually too scared to confront their employers, he says.
An entrenched problem
Unions and employment lawyers say bullying, discouraging or not allowing leave, sexual harassment and unfair dismissals are commonplace in the industry.
The Labour Inspectorate proactively focuses on the sector as one with a “high risk of employee exploitation”.
It conducts about 600 investigations a year into breaches of minimum employment standards and last year 297 were related to the hospitality sector.
The accommodation and food industry also generally tops the list of enforcement taken as a result of investigations. For example, in Christchurch in 2017 it was found there were 44 breaches in the industry in a 19-month period from the inspectorate, compared to the second-placed construction industry, which had 25.
A few examples of punishment for employment breaches include an Auckland Indian restaurant owner being fined $5000 last year, a Christchurch Japanese restaurant owner paying $70,000 in 2018 and a Christchurch bar and restaurant owner that same year being banned from hiring staff for three years.
Some commentators claim these issues are so entrenched that wage theft has become a business model in the industry.
Raise the Bar union founder Chloe Ann-King says many of the practices alleged at C1 Espresso are “incredibly common and always have been”.
There is often “chronic understaffing” in venues, which leads to workers not getting proper breaks.
“I was speaking to someone who had two months when they were working 60-hour weeks and had no breaks at all.”
Beyond the illegalities, she wants to have conversations about the “cruelty” in the industry.
“It has absolutely devastating effects on mental health. I know so many people who have developed depression within six months of working in hospitality.”
She meets workers who are forced to come in to work with severe oil burns and in conditions in which they can “barely stand”.
Hehir says hospitality is largely a transient industry, which means workers can be seen as “disposable”.
“The high turnover is a huge problem. What that does is reinforce a culture where people are individualised, they come and go, you might be on the night shift and not see a lot of the other people that work there.”
Hospitality venues are often high-speed, high-stress environments, and employees can use this to justify poor workplace cultures, he says.
In many jobs paid sick leave is not available until staff have worked for six months.
“In a pandemic that’s appalling.
“I’m sick of hearing complaining from the industry that they can’t keep hold of good workers. There are enormous amounts of really skilled people, but the problem is they know what the industry is like.”
McGaugh says a surprising number of hospitality employers are either not aware of worker entitlements, or are and do not fulfil them. Although she is unsure exactly why this might be.
“Many employers I’ve come across have said ‘I’ve got this issue with my employee’ and I’ll say ‘can you please forward me their contract’. They’ll say they don’t have one, they never got around to it, which is illegal.”
What can exploited workers do?
Because of high turnover in the industry, Hehir says Unite has found it hard to unionise in the past.
There was some hope in Labour’s Fair Pay Agreement policy, which would compel unions and employer associations to negotiate industry-wide collective employment agreements. However, this looks a long way off as it is faced with further rounds of public consultation.
One avenue for those who feel able to confront employers is personal grievance claims, which can result in individual payments, apologies and other actions.
Grounds for such complaints include unjustifiable dismissal, harassment, “unjustifiable action which disadvantages the employee”, and not acting within legal requirements for agreed hours of work.
However, claims must be filed within 90 days of when the action occurred.
The Labour Inspectorate is an option, although King says it is “underfunded” and often does not investigate claims.
A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment spokesperson says for the Labour Inspectorate to investigate a claim, there must be “credible witnesses or complainants willing to state their case on the record”.
The inspectorate is resourced for this work and all complaints alleging employment standard breaches are assessed to “ascertain the best way to reach resolution”, the spokesperson says.
The ministry receives about 100,000 enquiries about employment issues per year and the “vast majority” are resolved through the ministry’s guided self-resolution process. Approximately 4000 mediations are conducted per year and about 600 are investigated by the Labour Inspectorate.
It is not investigating C1 Espresso as it has not been contacted about employment breaches at the business.
Pushing for healthy workplaces
For all the negative experiences of workers in the industry, this “does not define” it, says Restaurant Association of New Zealand chief executive Marisa Bidois.
The association represents 2500 member businesses, including C1 Espresso, which it is currently reviewing the employment practices of.
“To be honest, the majority of people we deal with every day go above and beyond for their staff and have workplaces where they are treated as family.
“I’ve heard incredible stories, especially during Covid, of employers supporting their employees.”
Like every sector, hospitality has issues, and the association is working on them, she says.
It runs leadership courses, which include empowering managers to create positive workplace cultures.
The most important first step towards this is workplaces adopting policies on staff treatment and workplace bullying. These help staff know where to go if they have problems.
“It defines the type of workplace you are helping to create. I think having these policies is becoming more common, but we still have some way to go.”
This week it unveiled its workers’ support initiative and part of this will help workers to negotiate employment contracts.
Next year the association will create an accreditation platform for member businesses. To achieve these employers must have appropriate employment agreements and policies.
It is also in the process of creating a “road map” for the future of the industry. For this, workers and unions will be “at the table”, she says.
Lisa Levy and her chef husband Simon opened Christchurch foodie destination Inati in 2017.
They are doing all they can to move away from the atmosphere Lisa experienced in some restaurants when she entered the industry 20 years ago.
“I remember having a pot thrown at me. There was a lot of exploitation and for a young 18-year-old female it was very much smile and look pretty, but that’s not something we would tolerate here.
“I think the industry has really changed. There are a lot of really good owner-operators out there.”
Staff are treated like a “family” at the restaurant and know who they can talk to if they have problems, she says.
“We have an open door policy. If you need to talk about something, come and talk to us.”
For all the processes in place, it is important to treat staff with respect, so they feel comfortable raising issues, she says.
Levy feels it is important to ensure staff are given the required breaks, but admits it can be a challenge in hospitality, timing this around periods of busy service.
Staff must feel valued, and the business likes to thank them with trips, tastings and by remembering birthdays.
It is also as simple as supporting workers when they are stressed or anxious.
“We’re very aware that it’s a high-pressure environment. If you’re not feeling up to it, have a wellbeing day, stay at home, stay in bed, do whatever you need to do.”
The power of social media
McGaugh says a positive to come from the C1 Espresso saga is showing how social media can help mistreatment not to be “brushed under the carpet”.
Painter says the initial post was targeted specially at university students because many younger people “haven’t experienced the work environment to a great extent, so don’t actually know where our rights lie”.
She is humbled by the fact her post allowed others to feel encouraged to take action.
“I think the greatest thing was all these people who had worked there who were saying ‘I didn’t realise there was something wrong with it’ and now they’re realising there was definitely something wrong with it.
“I’m glad those people are now reaching out and talking to lawyers and getting help.”
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