This story started out as two workers pushed out of their jobs in an upmarket Auckland café. Teenage waitresses at the café were required to attend work but were only paid when they were physically on the floor. The rest of the time they sat in the staffroom unpaid. It was outrageous, but it was a simple case of exploitation. However, during a meeting with the bosses, it went dark.
The manager, we found out, was having serial “relationships” with his schoolgirl charges. There were accusations of favourtism. When I queried the owner, she said she didn’t get involved in the romantic relationships of her employees. Really? These schoolgirls were 16-year-old. He was their adult boss.
This case began when I met two teenagers who worked after school. Both of them were from reasonably wealthy families who didn’t actually need to work. Their parents wanted them to have the responsibility of earning their own money. The café was in the swanky end of town. The customers were the well-heeled.
We settled this particular case in mediation which the girls were very happy about. Unfortunately for us, the terms of settlement mean I can’t identify the people involved or the business. But by telling this story, other young workers might come forward and get justice. This story won’t be unique.
I am told by other young hospitality workers that not being paid for downtime whilst still being required to be at work, is not unusual. This is pure exploitation. I hope any affected worker will contact us if this is still happening in their workplace. Managers seeking sexual favours is standard fare in many workplaces. But schoolgirls preyed upon by their adult manager is something much more sinister. This is serious abuse at the top end.
I got a call from an official from another union who asked if I would help with a case. I was introduced to two young teenagers. They were both bright and chatty. One was 16 and the other 17-years-old. The two girls had been frozen out of their part-time jobs after they had complained about their treatment to their bosses.
At this workplace, the waitresses were mainly students on part-time shifts. There was a rostered start time, but no finish time. When the workers arrived, they were sent to the staffroom. They didn’t go onto the floor to serve customers unless instructed by the manager. When it got quiet, they’d be sent back. They would clock in and clock out as the moved between the floor to the staffroom. They were only paid for the time on the floor. This is illegal. Clearly, it is exploitative.
These two girls had kept all their shift and wage details. After reading through their evidence I could see they were shortchanged in about one in three shifts. Over the months they had worked there, it amounted to several thousands of dollars. One girl was paid for 20 minutes on one night but was required to sit in the staff room for four hours.
Whilst this is an outrageous case in its own right, I thought the employer would claim a ‘misunderstanding’ and backpay the two workers and we could move on. But no. Their lawyer responded in her first email that the company had no case to answer.
I looked up the business on-line. The company had several other upmarket outlets. The owner lived in a leafy liberal enclave and proudly promoted environmental causes on her website. Over several exchanges, her lawyer, on her behalf, continued to refuse admitting any wrongdoing. This was before I was writing for Daily Blog and had no UTU truck to turn up outside their café to focus their minds. Eventually, they reluctantly agreed to mediation.
The boss turned up with an entourage exuding charm and relentless positivity. Her sales pitch was she was doing the girls a favour. According to this self-proclaimed benefactor, all the schoolgirls she employed really appreciated that they could sit in the staffroom for long periods and complete their homework. And having the opportunity get paid for interludes on the floor was a win/win for everyone. She beamed at me expectedly. I think that was a cue for me to praise her largesse.
Clearly, I couldn’t see her big picture. When the girls said they were ostracised after they raised their complaints, she was affronted and asked for evidence. When they went through several examples of being left out of the “it” crowd, such as not being invited to parties and banned from the Christmas party, the boss and her lawyer feigned boredom with eye rolls. I finally understood the popularity of the teenage film “Mean Girls”. Ugh!
Just before a break, things got real nasty. One of their flunkies present covertly slips the lawyer a note with a side whisper. The lawyer looks up at us. She reads out a name and asks the 16-year-old if she knows the name. The young woman next to me tenses. I immediately respond: “we will answer after the break”. The lawyer smirks. “It’s a simple question, we’d like her to answer it?” I clip back that these girls have just said they were bullied by their managers and this was an example. The lawyer asks for the mediator to force the girl to answer. I told them to piss off!
In the break, the 16-year-old said the person was her 25-year-old manager. They’d had “an affair”. Her mate said that everyone had been annoyed at work because she had got preferred shifts from the manager. I asked if there were others. They said there had been four girls during the time they were employed. I sat there stunned. Both girls had been there less than a year. “That’s one about every two months?” “Yes”. Geezers.
We reconvene. I ask did they know the name they raised before the break. “Yes”. “Why was it raised then?” “There were issues between the manager and her, she hadn’t disclosed.” Me, looking at the boss, who isn’t looking quite as poised. Does she think it’s appropriate for her managers to groom their young employees for sex? She replied employees’ romantic relationships weren’t her business. Did she feel a 16-year-old entering into a relationship with her adult manager was not her business? The gap between her and her 25 years old boss is surely a generation gap. The owner replies it’s no longer a problem as he no longer works there. “Was he sacked?” No. According to the boss, he was “very popular”, and she continued to have a “good relationship” with him. Extraordinary.
The young girl pipes up, helpfully letting us all know she “takes full responsibility for her actions”. There are certainly people in the room who should be taking responsibility for their actions. But not the youngest person, and certainly not the victim. The sound of crickets on the other side of the table was deafening. Disgusting!
I’d had enough. The gloves came off. The only thing that saved this owner was that the two girls didn’t want to drag the process out any further. And understandably, the victim didn’t want her parents to know the full trauma she had been through. A deal was done, the girls got all their wages backdated and in addition received a modest compensation. They thought it was fantastic. I wanted more, a lot more. But then, it’s not about me. None of the other side acknowledged their former employees’ mistreatment, let alone offered an apology.
As with any case in mediation, any outcome it is confidential, and the perpetuators don’t have to admit any wrongdoing. And they never do. At least the girls were chuffed. They were so happy they got some justice. They were rapt about getting all their back hours paid and getting an unexpected lump sum compensation.
But the boss and her flunkies were never held accountable. It cost them some money. But loose change, really. The owner never conceded her managers or herself had done anything wrong.
The opportunity to write articles on the Daily Blog will tip the scales for future cases like this. I am now able to write what really goes on in the real struggles of working-class people in the precariat. I can do this before I get muzzled in the legal framework.
This article should upset you. But I want to inspire you to help me do something about how vulnerable workers are being crushed every day.
We will campaign to publicly expose these exploiters and abusers. To help the project I purchased our little UTU bus. It’s getting fitted out at this very moment and will be ready next week. I needed $5,000 to get it on the road. I’ve never done a Give-a-Little Page before I started writing on Daily Blog a fortnight ago. I am extraordinarily grateful to many Daily Blog readers who have chipped in over $2,500 so far. I need to raise the rest by next week. If I had this bus when I first met these girls, I would have turned up at this café and exposed their employer’s behavior.
If you know of similar incidences of workplace abuse email us at email@example.com
If this story upsets you as much as it does me, then help me do something practical about it. Our little team are doing our best. If you can chip in, I’d be grateful. Click through here and help us reach our funding target so we get our little UTU bus on the road.
This really is a story you need to share with everyone you know. The more people who know, the easier it will be to end exploitation and abuse in the workplace.
Thank you / Nga Mihi,
Matt McCarten is the National Director of One Union and an UTU Trustee