Source: Unite Union New Zealand
One of New Zealand’s largest hospitality employers has offered a personal apology from its chief executive and promised a review of its culture after a Stuff #metooNZ investigation found it failed several teenage staff who were sexually harassed and assaulted by managers.
In cases going back to 2015, young women – some still at high school – reported being harassed, assaulted and in one case, raped by their male supervisors and managers at Pizza Hut and KFC outlets around the country. In some instances, the manager was promoted after complaints were laid.
The women say Restaurant Brands, which employs 4000 people and is the parent company of both fast food chains, did not investigate their cases properly and failed to keep them safe.
UNITE union supported the claims and has passed Stuff documents which paint a picture of a company which is at best ill-equipped to deal with #MeToo issues in the workplace, and at worst, willfully ignoring serious breaches of staff safety.
Experts say the hospitality industry is rife with abuses of power, and current legislation intended to protect workers is being ignored.
The names of the complainants have been withheld for legal reasons.
Alison Mau reports.
* US worker sues McDonald’s claiming sexual harassment was ignored
* Public service ‘susceptible’ to misuse of power for sexual gain – petitioner
* The evolution of New Zealand’s pizza industry
A teenage Pizza Hut worker was raped three times by her supervisor while setting up the store for the day’s trading. The attacks were the most serious in a raft of sexual assault and harassment complaints made by Pizza Hut and KFC staff in the past four years.
The teenager is one of three complainants who have launched formal sexual harassment claims against parent company Restaurant Brands, with the Human Rights Commission in recent months.
The claims made by young women at both Pizza Hut and KFC stores around the country include:
* Harassment was common and included unwanted physical touching, comments, texts and in one case, physical threats.
* Supervisors and managers did not know how to handle disclosures of sexual misconduct at the stores, told a complainant to stay quiet and in one case, destroyed text evidence.
* Measures to keep complainants safe after they reported the abuse were absent or inadequate.
* The company refused to investigate because “too much time” had passed.
* Investigations were poorly carried out and complainants were not told anything of the outcomes.
* An alleged perpetrator was paid while the investigation took place, but the complainant was forced to use her leave.
* In some cases, the alleged perpetrator was promoted or moved into a more senior position at other stores, with the company refusing to say whether the behaviour had been found proved.
Case One: Christchurch
Jasmine* was 17 and had been working at Pizza Hut for just two months when a new shift supervisor, Dilbagh “Sonny” Singh, scheduled her on morning shifts with him in mid-2018. He raped her three times in the space of two weeks, while they prepared to open the store for customers. They were the only staff on shift at the time.
Singh was convicted of three counts of rape in the Christchurch District Court in October this year. Last week, he was sentenced to nine years and six months in jail.
Jasmine says she was threatened by Singh and was too scared to report the attacks at first, telling only her best friend, who also worked at the restaurant, when she came to work after the first rape.
“I was mostly scared that no-one would believe me because I was new to the company, and he told me I would lose my job,” she told Stuff.
She later received explicit texts from an unknown phone, asking for sex and saying Singh had suggested she would welcome such advances.
In January this year Jasmine gave a workmate permission to tell area manager Glen Cooper about the rapes, and Cooper immediately agreed to investigate.
However, before Cooper could talk to her, the restaurant manager (not Cooper) confronted Jasmine, saying he’d heard that something had happened. Jasmine says she felt pressured to tell him about the assaults, and when she did was told not to go to the police as she “had no evidence” and that she should “leave it as it happened so long ago.”
Jasmine laid a complaint with police in January 2019 and says she was happy with the outcome of October’s court case, although the experience giving evidence was “awful.”
But she says the internal investigation carried out by members of the Restaurant Brands Human Resources department, was botched and heartless. The company refused to move her to another store, and initially refused to give her any leave, while Singh was stood down on full pay.
Jasmine resigned from Pizza Hut in February 2019, and says she has struggled with depression and anxiety, made worse by the way the company handled her complaints.
“I can’t even put it into words how they made me feel.
“All over again I was being treated like I was nothing. I meant nothing. It made me feel like coming forward was not the right thing to do.”
Jasmine has formally launched a sexual harassment complaint with the Human Rights Commission, which will look into the way her case was handled by Restaurant Brands.
Case 2: Palmerston North
Julie* was 19 and working in hospitality for the first time at Palmerston North’s KFC, when she says she was targeted by a newly-promoted restaurant manager.
The man began to make comments about her looks and parts of her body, texted her outside of work, and lied about being married, she says.
“In the end, people would make fun of me and say, are you guys seeing each other outside of work?
“The whole store started joking about it.”
When Julie, who is in a same-sex relationship, told the manager to stop his attitude changed and he became abusive.
She was shown text messages the manager sent to other workers on the store cell phone, calling her “big ears”, a “s… stirrer” and referring to “f…… lesbians”.
She says the situation came to a head in mid-2018 when she had to take sick leave, and came into the store with a doctors’ certificate. She says the manager was angry and when she tried to plead her case with him, he punched the wall and blocked her exit from the room, stopping only when she pointed out there were cameras recording their movements.
With the help of a union organiser, Julie laid a complaint with her area manager in early August and asked for an immediate transfer to another store. The area manager refused, and emails seen by Stuff show a Restaurant Brands HR staff member subsequently refused both the transfer and an investigation, saying there was no risk to Julie. Despite being emailed screenshots of the abusive texts on the store’s cellphone, the staff member told Julie there was no “actual evidence.” The texts were later erased, apparently deliberately, by the alleged harasser.
On August 22 the company again refused to investigate, saying because the alleged physical threat had occurred more than four months before, she had waited too long to lay the complaint.
Julie continued to plead for a transfer but was told she would have to apply to other stores for any spare shifts, and in the meantime continue to work with the manager.
When an investigation was finally launched in late August several witnesses objected to the area manager being appointed to lead it, saying he was a close friend of the alleged harasser and could not be impartial.
The investigation was supplied with texts from another worker’s phone, which show the alleged harasser messaged “ok, hope u drown. Don’t forget your death certificate” when she turned down a cover shift to go to the beach.
On October 3, Julie was advised the investigation had concluded but she was not given the results. Julie asked for a review, which was conducted by Restaurant Brands in December, and found only that “inappropriate language” had been used on the store cellphone.
Her Human Rights Commission complaint asks for a review of the way Restaurant Brands investigated her case, compensation for 150 hours lost wages, hurt and humiliation, and a commitment from the company that complaint and investigation procedures will be improved.
Case 3: Whanganui
In early May 2019, Savannah* laid a complaint that a shift supervisor would touch her buttocks as he walked past her, and on one occasion pushed against her, saying “don’t get too excited.”
Stuff has seen documents which show similar allegations were made about the same man touching another female employee in February 2019, but the restaurant manager did not report it. The man was subsequently promoted to supervisor.
After leaving her job at the store, Savannah made a formal complaint. While the investigation was underway, the man was moved to another Restaurant Brands store and promoted again, this time to assistant manager.
In June, representatives of Savannah and a witness were told the investigation had concluded and “appropriate follow-up steps” had been taken. No other information was given, but Stuff has confirmed the man remains assistant manager at a Restaurant Brands outlet.
In response to a breach of good faith complaint, Restaurants Brands HR manager Helen Van Druten later confirmed sexual harassment training had been given to all restaurant managers and area managers in March 2019. She did not mention supervisors or assistant managers.
Savannah has filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Human Rights Commission.
Case 4: Auckland
Alexa* was in her final year at high school when she started working part-time at Pizza Hut in 2015. Shortly afterwards her supervisor, a man in his 40s, began texting her outside work hours, calling her his “girlfriend” and buying her gifts.
Alexa told a Restaurant Brands HR investigation he offered her extra hours and lifts home, until her mother put a stop to it. He would insist she text him at night and would get angry if she didn’t do so, cutting her shifts in retaliation, she says.
After inviting her to the movies and being turned down, Alexa says the man turned up at her house and insisted she come to dinner and a movie. While she was in the car, he touched her and “roughly grabbed” her arm.
The harassment and grooming ceased when the man transferred to another store, but started again when he came back to the Pizza Hut where Alexa worked in 2016, and the behaviour was reported to the area manager for investigation.
Alexa says she did not hear anything further, other than receiving an email with a copy of her interview notes.
“I found out a while later he was working at KFC – so he’s still at Restaurant Brands.”
Company puts “more energy” into protecting the alleged harasser
“If they took sexual harassment as seriously as they take petty theft, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” says UNITE industrial officer Duncan Allen of the raft of harassment complaints he has helped lodge.
UNITE has had complaints from employees at other companies – but nothing like Restaurant Brands, which Allen says appears to have a deep-rooted issue with its company culture.
“Far more energy (is) put into protecting the alleged harasser than there is about investigating properly and fixing things.”
He believes there’s a pattern of employees leaving their jobs because laying a complaint is made too difficult, with the company demanding specific evidence – including exact dates and times – before they will agree to look into allegations.
“(They say) ‘we can’t investigate until you have some actual evidence’. They even said that after we supplied them with text messages.
“The starting point is, ‘no, we don’t believe you and unless you have overwhelming evidence we’re not even going to investigate.’”
Allen says the union asked Restaurant Brands to tackle the issue at collective agreement negotiations earlier this year, but a draft harassment document was rejected by the company. When changes to the current agreement were suggested as a compromise, they were also rejected.
Abuse “an industry-wide issue”
The New Zealand Human Rights Commission received 78 sexual harassment complaints between January 1 and December 4 this year but refused to confirm the number of complaints it’s received from Restaurant Brands workers.
And when it comes to a MeToo-style reckoning for harassment and abuse in the hospitality industry, we’re not even off the starting blocks, according to sector advocates.
In Australia, a recent survey by online hospitality workers’ union Hospo Voice found 89 per cent of the 306 surveyed had experienced sexual harassment at work.
Three-quarters said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances (73 per cent) and inappropriate touching (69 per cent).
Another survey by the Human Rights Commission and which included retail and warehousing workers, found 39 per cent had experienced sexual harassment in the past five years.
Although there are no such statistics available here, hospitality workers’ advocate Chloe-Ann King says the picture in New Zealand is likely to be just as grim.
“Rape culture is all over hospitality, even putting gender aside. I speak to male hospo workers who are sick of being groped, and particularly people who are gender fluid feel deeply unsafe at work,” she says.
She says large businesses often trumpet their lengthy harassment policies, but fail to implement them effectively.
“We have employment law too, but if it’s not being enforced then it’s just ink on paper,” she says.
“If we’re seeing examples of harassment and rape, then it’s not working.”
Duncan Allen says the traditional suggestion that harassers are always customers is wrong.
“In my experience it’s always been a manager, or someone in a position of authority.”
He insists training must flow down the management chain to everyone who is in a position of power; complainants safety should be taken more seriously and proper investigations carried out, where the complainants feel a part of the process.
And he says Restaurant Brands should stop worrying first about their reputation.
“As we all know, if you try and hide things they just keep happening. In any workplace these things could occur, but when they do, they need to be dealt with properly.”
Restaurant Brands’ apology
In response to Stuff‘s investigation, Restaurant Brands has offered a face-to-face apology to Jasmine – although Jasmine’s official advocate Duncan Allen said he was yet to hear of such an offer.
Restaurant Brands also said as a result of the “terrible events” it would launch a company-wide review of its approach to bullying, harassment and assault claims.
“We are always willing to learn and improve our policies and procedures to ensure that they are the best they can be and support a positive workplace culture,” its statement said. “An external review is currently underway to ensure our policies and procedures reflect current best practice. We also have a review of our existing training programme and toolkit for managers planned for early 2020, to ensure that managers are equipped to handle complaints in a thoughtful and appropriate way.
“Restaurant Brands apologises to our former employee. We are deeply sorry that (she) was raped while at work. That should not have happened.”
Because cases two and three were active complaints, it wouldn’t comment further except to say it took those cases seriously and would co-operate fully with the complainants.
It said it had systems in place to ensure staff training in relation to harassment and bullying, and that staff were aware of its expectations around treating colleagues with respect. Managers had specific training, and all employees had access to Employee Assistance Programme, an external confidential reporting hotline, and HR contacts.
“We are committed to regular introspection and reassessment to ensure we are consistent with best practice in 2020 and beyond.”
WHERE VICTIMS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE CAN GET HELP
Rape Crisis – 0800 88 33 00 (Will direct you to a nearby centre), follow link for information on local helplines
Victim Support – 0800 842 846 (24hr service)
The Harbour, online support and information for those affected by harmful sexual behaviour
Women’s Refuge (For women and children) – crisis line available on 0800 733 843
Safe to talk – 0800 044 334, text 4334 or web chat
Male Survivors Aotearoa (For men) – follow link for regional helplines
If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.
Sunday Star Times