Raise the bar!: an interview with Chloe-Ann King

by BRONWEN BEECHEY. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Can you briefly introduce yourself and why you feel passionate about hospitality workers’ rights?

My name is Chloe Ann-King and I am a writer, workers’ rights organizer, community activist and welfare advocate with a strong background in academia and grassroots organizing. I’ve also spent most of my life in low waged work which includes a 15-year stint in the hospo [hospitality] industry. During my time in this industry I endured wage theft, sexual harassment (mostly from customers), insecure shifts, cut shifts with no good faith negotiation and have been fired with absolutely no reason given. For these reasons I became incredibly passionate about hospo rights. No one should go to work and feel unsafe and be paid so poorly you don’t have enough money to live on.

When did you begin your involvement in organizing and advocating for hospitality workers?

I volunteered in unions for years and my mum is a trade unionist, so from a really young age I was interested and passionate about defending workers’ rights across the board. I specifically started advocating for hospo workers around 3 years ago and I also began speaking out in the media about our working conditions.

When was Raise the Bar founded? What was the rationale for its creation?

Raise the Bar was established about 2 years ago and the rationale behind my decision was that the hospo industry was basically unregulated: consecutive governments had barely enforced employment law in the industry and unions, in general, didn’t seem that interested in protecting the rights of hospo workers. Many trade unionists told me this was because the industry was “too hard to organize and too spread out.” I don’t agree with this sentiment at all.

What has been the history of union activity for hospo workers (prior to Raise the Bar)?

Before Raise the Bar, E tū [New Zealand’s biggest private sector union] was meant to be organizing and protecting the rights of hospo workers. I was a member of this Union for a while, but it became increasingly clear this union had almost no interest in organizing hospo – some of their reps outright told me it just wasn’t an industry that could be organized. E tū was launched in October 2015 with the merging of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, the Service and Food Workers Union and the Flight Attendants and Related Services Union. But in the entire time that I worked in the hospo industry I never once saw a union rep from SFWU set foot into my workplace. I’ve no idea what their reps where doing with their time, but they certainly weren’t doing anything to protect or organize hospo workers in the CBD. Most hospo workers I speak with (especially young ones) have no idea what a union even is.

There are certainly unions such as Unite Union who are doing a really great job of organizing service workers at SkyCity and fast food workers but once again all the bars, restaurants and smaller cafes have mostly been left untouched by unions in the last 20 years.

What are the main issues facing hospo workers?

Wage theft is the number one issue we deal with at Raise the Bar, we get email after email from hospo workers who tell us their boss is stealing off them. This theft can include breaks docked that workers never took, underpayment or no payment of wages, bosses refusing to pay holiday pay (8%) or sick leave, and employers making unreasonable deductions from wages when customers walk out and don’t pay.

Other major issues include racism within the industry, ranging from racist hiring practices, like Pākehā hospo employers throwing out CV’s when names appear too “indigenous” for them to pronounce, to customers saying racist things to hospo workers that management don’ t do much to mitigate. I’ve witnessed Pākehā hospo employers also exploiting new migrant workers from Asian countries, forcing them to work unpaid or for well below the minimum wage. I’ve written about such issues for E-Tangata which is an online Sunday magazine run by the Mana Trust.

Sexual harassment is also epidemic in the industry, to the point where sexual assault and harassment on shift has been, in my opinion, completely normalised. Hospo Voice, a digital union in Melbourne organizing hospo workers, put out a survey that stated 89% of all female hospo workers surveyed had experienced sexual harassment on shift. Imagine going to work and you only had an 11% chance of being safe on shift.

Other major issues include basic employment entitlements such as breaks being constantly denied by duty managers – usually because of pressure and understaffing at the hands of employers. Many hospo workers I speak with will work over 8 hours without adequate meal or tea breaks.

Can you give examples of the poor treatment of hospo workers, either from your own experience or people you have advocated for?

Personally, I’ve been sexually assaulted and harassed on shift more times than I care to remember which has included having my breasts and ass groped, and outright assaults. Five years ago, a customer pushed me into a bathroom stall and shoved his tongue down my threat and started feeling me up. I had to fight my way out. I just continued my shift that night like nothing happened – I needed the money and feared I would be sent home if I told my manager. I still have flashbacks to what that customer did, which is a sign of work-related PTSD.

A lot of hospo employers I’ve worked for have stolen from me, which ranges from them underpaying me, refusing to pay me, docking breaks I never took, refusing to pay 8% sick pay, forcing me to undertake training unpaid… I could go on. I’ve worked 12-hour shifts with maybe one 10-minute break and I’ve even been denied toilet breaks on the odd occasion which, frankly, was pretty humiliating. You really learn about your place in society when you have to beg your boss to take a piss.

What has been the response of existing unions to your campaigns?

Recently, mostly negative responses. I’ve had union men verbally attack me which often boils down to them telling me I need to ‘toe the union line’ – this has often felt like a low-level threat. And I’ve had union men undermine the mahi I’ve been doing in different ways.

Most recently two male union reps contacted two hospo workers/leaders in Raise the Bar who I was organizing with against wage theft. These Māori wāhine hospo workers had developed a strong media strategy, among other tactics, to get results with support from Raise the Bar. These Pākehā guys ignored the awesome mahi these hospo workers had done already to organize themselves. They proceeded to talk over these workers and didn’t bother to ask what they wanted or what a ‘win’ looked like to them. This left them feeling spoken over, disempowered and distrusting of unions – it was their very first experience dealing with union reps.

I feel structural issues of sexism and racism are a massive issue within our union movements in Aotearoa/NZ. I eventually stopped showing up to pickets and meetings – I just didn’t feel comfortable anymore. I used to love volunteering for unions but now I feel dejected about the movement and how some union reps treat people who propose different models of organizing or criticise issues of structural injustice within the movement. There seems to be a really swift clampdown against people who generally want to see new models of organizing such as digital organizing and bringing back rank and file organizing in response to low waged and precarious industries such as hospo.

What have been some of the successes of Raise the Bar?

The most recent success is the $30,000 pay-out we collectively got from Wagamama England. The owner of Wagamama Wellington shut the doors of his business with no notice given to his workers and then put the business into receivership. He refused to pay wages owed and holiday pay amounting to tens of thousands of dollars which left most of his workers significantly out of pocket.

The workers collectively organized with support from me and Raise the Bar, and in under a month we managed to get Wagamama in England to cough up some of the money as a good will gesture – $30,000 to be exact. A lot of this was due to the ongoing media pressure the workers and Raise the Bar applied by using a strong media campaign to ‘out’ Wagamama for wage theft. We also, generally, have weekly wins that include smaller pay-outs to hospo workers in wages owed by bosses refusing to pay. We also have consistently gotten issues such as wage theft in hospo into the media.

I also give out free legal advice (with support from an employment advocate who is legally trained) to hospo workers on a weekly basis. I count this as an ongoing success because the more hospo workers know their rights and feel empowered to stand up to their employers the more chance we have of structural change within the industry.

What issues will you campaign on in the next year?

The main issue we are focused on is wage theft and pushing the government to make wage theft a criminal offence. Right now, it is illegal for a boss to commit wage theft; but it isn’t a criminal offence, meaning that the most these employers will face is a fine. Hospo employers are stealing hundreds of thousands off their workers annually and face almost no consequences for their behaviour. Yet, if a hospo worker put their hand in the till and took $50 bucks they could be up on criminal charges if their employer rang the cops. Personally, I think this is a really clear-cut example of the massive power imbalances within both our workplaces and criminal justice system. Employers are protected but workers are not.

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