‘In Greed We Trust’: how the Trusts’ in West Auckland are exploiting their workers and breaking the law

You’d hope that if a “charitable” Trusts’ motto is “Giving back and investing into the community”, that they’d start by treating their own workers with respect and dignity, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t the case when it comes to The Portage and Waitakere Licensing Trusts, (hereafter the Trusts) out in West Auckland, New Zealand.

If you aren’t familiar with who or what the Trusts are, between them they have an exclusive license to operate twenty-five retail stores.  These include liquor stores, eleven hospitality venues, and one hotel, in a geographical area covering nearly the whole of West Auckland. In other words, they hold a geographic monopoly when it comes to selling piss, pedalling pokies, and dishing up food and coffee. And they are big on letting everyone know about just how charitable they are, and how much they love their community out West.

Regarding all their blowhard ‘care for the community’-type self-promotion, I can tell you as someone who has worked in one of their restaurants, this ‘care’ and fostering a community approach does not extend to their own workers.

From personal experience, and speaking with dozens of Trusts’ employees, there are many examples of unsafe work environments at their venues. Complaints include sexual harassment, an openly anti-union stance, employees being denied basic employment rights such as breaks, and wage theft. Additionally, the majority of their service workers earn poverty-rate wages while the Trusts’ president earns a six figure salary.  

Up until this point, not much has been said publicly about how this charitable organisation treats their workers, but they have certainly been under the media spotlight for the last few weeks, and NONE of the attention is flattering. The Spinoff recently exposed a number of concerns, such as conflicts of interest among the Trust’s board members, that this “community” organisation promotes problem gambling at their venues, and a lack of transparency in regards to how they spend their money.  Increasingly, it has come to the public’s attention that this community organisation may not be as “charitable” as they profess to be.

From early January 2018 until March 2018, I was employed at Bricklane, a restaurant situated in New Lynn, owned and operated by the Trusts.  Even by hospitality standards, the Trusts have an incredibly low staff retention rate of around 13%. You might ask why they struggle so badly to hold on to staff. Here is your answer:

The Trusts pay the minimum wage, or slightly above it, to the vast majority of their service workers.  When I had my job interview with Scott Kennedy (hospitality manager) he told me that Brick Lane was a “cash cow” and made “loads” of money. Yet very little of this profit is ending up in the pockets of their workers. At least one kitchen hand told me he was on the minimum wage. I spoke to another worker who was employed in one of their retail stores, she stated she was only offered ten cents above minimum wage when she began working for them.

When I was hired I negotiated a starting rate of $17 an hour, but when I was handed my contract I was told I would be paid the baffling amount of exactly $16.88. Another employee I spoke with told me they were also on a seemingly random wage of $16.08 an hour. One has to wonder how on Earth the Trusts calculates the wages they pay their staff.

If you treat your workers as nothing more than units-of-production to turn over a profit for some corporate arm headed by a six-figure-salary-plus-five-figure-bonus “earner”, they tend to quit.

In April 2018, the government increased minimum wage to $16.50. Some employees at Bricklane have told me they were given a measly pay rise – bumped up to just $17 an hour. Across all of their venues, the Trusts’ pay the vast majority of their staff far below the living wage rate, which will rise to $20.55 an hour this year. I guess their sense of “generosity” doesn’t extend to their retail and hospitality workers.

The Spinoff reported that Labour city councillor Ross Clow, also president of the Portage Licensing Trust, is earning an eye watering salary of $127,487 plus bonuses.  And National councillor Linda Cooper, who is the president of the Waitākere Licensing Trust, is earning a salary of more than $100,000. So while people such as Cooper and Clow are on six figure salaries, the vast majority of The Trusts’ workers are earning poverty wages. Does this sound fair to you? Personally, I think it sounds like bullshit.

***

One of the Trusts’ key values, is: “Respect! Do what you say you’re going to, with care for each other.” This sentiment is hardly reflected in the sub-human wages they pay their workers, a wage that does not match inflation, the CPI (consumer price index) or Auckland’s  spiralling living costs. Just because you say something doesn’t make it true, no matter how many times you repeat it.

As far as I am concerned, there is a special place reserved in hell for employers who profit off the blood, sweat, and tears of their own workers.   Paying them so poorly, they can barely survive the rising tide of inequality and wrought, in part, by wage suppression, not failing to mention employers who exploit their staff with no remorse. Employees from West Auckland and ALL other employees from all over Aotearoa deserve to be paid a living wage.  The Trusts’ should lead by actual example, not merely empty rhetoric.

If the discrepancy between Clow and Cooper’s six figure salaries and the pittance paid the Trusts’ hospitality and retail workers does not make your blood boil, perhaps this will: The Spinoff reported that before 2016, the Trusts had sold a whopping NZ$100 million worth of alcohol in the last decade. But as the report continues, “up until recently the Trusts’ financial contribution to local community could be measured in the tens-of-thousands.” More recently, they have invested $1,000,000 dollars per annum back into the community, while spending $200,000 on advertising costs alone!

They are a vastly profitable conglomerate, yet very little of those profits are ending up in the bank accounts and hands of their lowest paid workers, or even the community they are beholden to.

I think it should be noted that the large majority of trustees at the Trusts are actively in favour of paying their own workers poverty wages. Just for some background:

The Trusts’ is made up of three different boards: the Portage Trust Board (ten members), the Waitakere Trust Board (seven members), and lastly the West Auckland Independent Board (WAI) (five members) for a total of 22 Trustees.

A few years ago, the Trusts (like other wider organisations associated with the council and community) put paying all their employees a living wage to a vote. I am told that only around two trustees, voted in favour. Yep, you read that right: Only around two trustees thought their workers deserved to be paid enough to afford the basics of life.

I reached out to Clow for comment over email and I asked for his stance on the living wage; he responded writing,

“I want to categorically state that I am a strong supporter of the Living Wage campaign, and the goal of delivering all a decent income.”

But the question has to be asked: if he is the president of the Portage Licensing Trusts, and he also chairs the Auckland Council Advisory Group on the Living Wage, then why is it that the Trusts’ workers have remained on such low pay packets? The devil is in the detail: Clow goes on to contradict himself in the same email.  He states that hospitality has low profit margins and “it is vital we remain competitive against our close competitors”. In other words the buck, and Clow’s, commitment to the living wage stops at the Trusts’ doorstep. Perhaps Clow’s position as chair on the Advisory Group on the Living Wage needs to be reviewed?

Sub-human wages are not the only problem. In the two and a half months that I worked for this company, I was routinely denied my basic break entitlements which, just for the record,  is a breach of employment law. I continuously complained to my duty managers, asking for my break entitlements and eventually I began to get them, although only sporadically. I believe the Trusts purposely under-staff their venues as a way to save on wages. But what then occurs is that during high volume periods and weekends, breaks are overlooked for the sake of “customer service” and an extra corporate buck. Not to mention when you under-staff a hospitality business, it means your workers have to work twice as hard while still earning piss all per hour. Does this sound like an ethical business practice to you?

I spoke with Nick* who worked as a Duty Manager for one of the Trusts’ venues from 2013 to 2016. He told me he started on $15 an hour (in 2013 the minimum wage was $13.75). During this time he recalls that he never received a pay-rise until the yearly governmental increase and then he’d be bumped him up about 50 cents. He went on to say that he often worked as sole charge during the day and rarely, if ever, received his basic break entitlements during these periods. The longest he worked on one shift without a break because of “understaffing” was 12 hours straight.

Nick also tells me he believes wage theft was happening while he was working for the Trusts:

“I remember for a time, there was a period where we were getting unpaid breaks – as in, the venue managers would deduct the amount of time for breaks from the wages of that day.”

In other words, he believes that breaks he never took were being deducted from his pay! This doesn’t just breach employment law: it’s outright illegal.  This type of wage theft is common in the hospitality sector, but you’d hope an employer pitching themselves as a community organisation, would be better than this.

When I asked Nick if he thought the Trusts’ cared for the welfare of its lowest paid workers, he responded without pause, saying, “Hell no”. He then elaborated:

“Any organisation that could be accurately described as a ‘trust representative’ is far too removed from the actual working conditions of their lowest paid workers to be able to care about them.”

I don’t know how Nick stuck out nearly three years working for the Trusts, because after only two and a half months of working for Bricklane, I had had enough. I made a formal complaint to my Union (E tū), which I have actively followed up a number of times. This was soon after I had a meltdown at work because I was so sick of how I was being treated. My mental health had began to suffer, I had started to drink heavily to cope, and frankly, I had had enough of their bullshit. I refused to go back because I felt my workplace was unsafe.  I terminated my employment with Bricklane, and was paid out for my final two weeks.

The reason why I called my workplace “unsafe” was because of the high levels of harassment I personally witnessed and endured at Bricklane. From regulars who go in for hugs without asking permission – my body is not your entitlement – and whose hands then sometimes crept down and on to my ass, to outright inappropriate comments from others: a customer once said to me, loudly, “You have great fucking tits.” Clearly the culture at these venues needs to change.

I expressed my concerns over the phone to Scott Kennedy (Hospitality Manager) in regards to lack of safe working conditions and basic break entitlements.  He told me he was horrified and would “investigate”. I recently followed up with an email and asked him if any form of an investigation was underway. I received no response.

The reality is that the socially corrosive pattern of hospitality businesses getting away with the most appalling behaviour in regards to how they treat their workers is commonplace in New Zealand. My industry is unregulated and its workplaces often dangerously unsafe. Breaches of employment law are common. It is a sector in which workers are routinely disempowered and exploited because of criminally low wages, poor Union representation, and nearly no oversight by the MBI (Ministry of Business and Innovation) or consecutive governments, and including those with Labour in charge. After all, Clow, is a Labour Party councilor who happily takes a six figure salary while his own workers are paid poverty wages.  

The Trusts’ 37 venues have a multi-employer collective agreement (MECA) with E tū Union, and as such, working conditions should be more bearable. The fact that they are not might have a lot to do with the anti-union sentiment I observed at Bricklane. The Duty Manager actually encouraged me not to sign the MECA Agreement as I was signing my employment contract.

While working at Bricklane and in speaking with dozens of Trusts’ workers this week, I’ve learned hardly any of the workers knew anything about the MECA or E tū.  I only knew about the benefits of signing this agreement because I come from a Union background (thanks, Mum) and I know how to read my contracts properly.

To be clear, each worker is offered two contracts they can sign when they first become employed by the Trusts’. The first is an individual agreement which leaves workers with little to no legal protections if things start going ‘wrong’ at work. The second is a MECA (Mixed Member Employment Collective Agreement) which gives workers greater protections as they are protected by their Union. But the Trusts’ ony inform workers of the MECA briefly over email and in a short letter attachment. No one, from Scott Kennedy to E tū representatives, explains the benefits of signing such an agreement over the individual contract, for example, signing the MECA exempts you from the controversial 90 Day Work Trial.

E tū need to step up their involvement with the Trusts as there have only been a handful of site visits by representatives in the last 12 months. E tū justified the lack of site visits in an email to me saying there was “no uptake” in regards to joining their union out West. This claim sits in stark contradiction to the workers I spoke with who had no idea they even had a Union. Multiple E tū representatives whom I spoke with told me they are in “living wage negotiations” with the Trusts. But they have been in these “negotiations” for years and nothing has changed. No workers at the Trusts’, I spoke with had any idea about these negotiations. If a tree falls in the woods…

It seems, in regards to protecting the rights of the workers at the Trusts, there is a lot less  E tū (stand strong/stand up) and far more e noho (sitting down)*.

In the before-mentioned email Clow sent to me, he stated, “Management also confirmed that the relationship with E tū continues to be a good working relationship.” Perhaps it is time E tū got out of bed with men like Clow and the Trusts’ upper-management and instead, started talking directly with the Trusts’ lowest paid workers. Clearly, their voices are not being heard.

If what I have told you isn’t bad enough, it gets worse.

I spoke with another worker named Paul* who has worked for one of the Trusts’ many liquor stores for four and a half years. He pointed out that he and his co-workers are all expected to undertake ongoing online training, outside of work. On the surface it may sound like this company is putting effort into upskilling their staff, but  the reality is, workers aren’t paid for any of the time put into the courses. He explained to me:

“In recent years they have also manipulated staff into doing many, many hours of online training in their own time* (which legally they are required to pay you for), saying things like:

‘if you can’t put a couple of hours of your own time into learning for the business, then we as a business don’t want you’…”

Another person who used to work in one of their retail stores contacted me over Messenger, she told me she also had to undertake online training and was told “it’s [our] problem to do it outside of work.” Both she and her co-workers attempted to argue against doing training unpaid and on their own time. But they were all threatened with disciplinary action by the store manager if they continued to speak out. This workplace bullying isn’t exactly conducive to a fair and safe working environment.

Throughout our conversation, Paul, much like Nick, made it clear he did not think the Trusts, cared for their staff and described their business practices as “sickening”.

E tū’s collective agreement and its benefits, should be thoroughly explained to all new workers and clearly this is not happening. And they should be encouraged to sign it, not discouraged, as I was. But there is a reason why anti-union sentiment flows through their veins and venues: it means they can continue to pay their workers peanuts while treating them like dirt, with no consequences.  

Well, I am here to say: I am your consequence. I am the Trust’s worst goddamn fucking nightmare. I am a low-waged precarious worker with nothing left to lose and everything left to gain.

Just because the rest of the hospitality industry treats their workers as disposable trash, does not mean the Trusts’ have to follow suit.  Afterall, they are – on paper – a charitable organisation which profess to invest back into their surrounding communities. Their workers mostly live out West and are part of that community. As such, they should pay every last one of their workers, at the very least, a living wage, and on top of this pay their workers to do online training.

What’s more, this community organisation is also making staggering profits off pokie machines, as The Spinoff reported. By proxy, they are profiting off community poverty and misery which is so often wrought by addiction issues, but as yet have not specifically invested any money back into addiction services. This would be a simple, logical, and ethical move to mitigate some of the destruction they so routinely enable in people’s lives. Those who are bearing the heavy weight of addiction in West Auckland should not be stigmatised and shamed but, instead, corporations who profit off addiction should be publicly shamed and stigmatised.

Between the sale of booze, and their ever-growing property and assets portfolio (estimated at $70 million) and the $14 million sitting in their bank account, I am sure they could find a few bob – or a few million – to pay their workers a decent wage, and then at least partially fund addiction services out West, which are woefully underfunded, with the area even lacking addiction peer support workers. I have already written elsewhere about the importance of peer support workers in addiction and recovery;  they are effectively the backbone of other addiction services in Auckland.

It would seem the Trusts are far more interested in brand building than community building.  I would laugh at their hypocrisy, but in all honesty I am deeply disturbed by their predatory business practices.

I believe they need to start moving towards a more sustainable, cooperative, and democratic way of operating. This is not much to ask, is it? It is just asking for workplace fairness and basic human decency.

Building on my own personal experiences, and after talking with dozens of other Trusts workers, it is clear they are far more about benefiting from the brutalities of late neoliberal-capitalism than investing back into their community.  It is time this changed, not next year, and not in a few months’ time, but today. Right now.

 

*Some names have been changed

Postscript:

Kia ora all! I am freelancing which means I have no secure income so, I rely on donations from the wider public to keep myself economically afloat. If you like what I have to say and want to support me, you can make a direct contribution via my bank account:

Name: MISS C A KING

Bank Details: 12-3040-0580277-01

Thanks very much for your aroha and time.

 

 

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