I’m a working class Pākehā who’s spent more than 15 years working, mostly on the minimum wage, in the hospitality industry in Aotearoa and Australia.
All through that time, I’ve seen and spoken out against injustices such as acts of racism and sexism committed by customers and bosses in my workplaces.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been fired or had my shifts cut in retaliation for speaking out. My treatment got so bad, in fact, that I ended up teaching myself employment law so I could fight them legally.
Eventually, I founded my own hospo campaign called Raise the Bar, a movement of mostly Pākehā and Māori wāhine hospo workers trying to raise wages and improve the working conditions in the hospo industry.
I launched Raise the Bar because I couldn’t sit by while hospo workers all over Aotearoa were being deliberately underpaid by their bosses (wage theft), and subjected to racism or racist hiring practices, sexism and sexual harassment.
I’ve seen a number of hospo bosses throw out CVs when they’ve spotted names that looked too indigenous for their Pākehā tongues to cope with. I recall asking one such employer why he’d chucked out a perfectly good CV from a Māori hospo worker. Without any sign of discomfort, he said he preferred hiring Pākehā for front-of-house roles.
This isn’t an isolated case. A year ago, I spoke to a Tongan duty manager who was working at a bar in an affluent part of Auckland about some of the racism he’d experienced. He told me he’d been trying to “hire more brown folk” but was stopped by his Pākehā employer who told him to “hire more white people because they reflect our clientele”.
Because of this kind of racism and other discrimination that I’ve witnessed in my time in hospitality, I wasn’t shocked when the news broke recently that a young Māori woman, Mia Griffiths, had been subjected to racist abuse from a Pākehā customer while she was working as a waitress at a restaurant at Auckland’s Viaduct.
She told the New Zealand Herald that the man made fun of her culture and pronunciation. For instance, he’d asked where her whānau was, and then said: “I bet they don’t eat here often. They’re at home eating boil-up.”
The man’s companions at the table were amused by his remarks — and no one stepped up in Mia’s defence.
I had a kōrero with Mia over the phone and she told me that racism like that happens all the time in her workplace, and she had spoken up because she wanted people to know that.
Mia has been working in hospo to save enough money to enrol in medical school but is now seriously considering leaving the industry because she fears a repeat incident. She says the industry is deeply unsafe, and not only because of the racism but the staggering levels of sexual harassment, too.
Hospo Voice, a digital hospo union in Australia, released a survey which found that 89 percent of the female hospitality workers who’d been surveyed had been sexually harassed on shift, and 17 percent had been assaulted.
Just let those numbers sit with you for a moment. Can you imagine going to work and having only an 11 percent chance of being safe from sexual harassment on your shift?
I spoke with Soraya Poharama Edwards about what had happened to Mia. Soraya is a Raise the Bar hospo leader and organiser from Te Tai Tokerau.
She said she felt sad because she knew “the pain of dealing with racist and, more often, classist members of the public, who do and say things that really debase a person in a position of servitude.”
She said Mia’s story resonated with her because “I’ve lived it. I know this experience. I know the impact it has on your wellbeing. And I know that this type of behaviour from patrons isn’t an isolated incident.”
Another Māori hospo worker told me she feels immense pressure to Europeanise her name when she applies for hospitality jobs because she feels Pākehā employers won’t hire her if they know she’s Māori.
This is just another example of the racist hiring practices that put Māori workers at a clear disadvantage when it comes to landing paid work, even in one of our most lowly paid and precarious industries where bosses are bemoaning a skills shortage.
Littoria Paku, of Ngāi Tahu, another organiser and hospo leader in Raise the Bar, wrote in a Facebook response to Mia’s experience, that when you’re working in hospo or customer service roles, “you come across incidents like this more times than you could possibly imagine and we are told the customer is always right”.
“At what point,” she asks, “is the line drawn and how is our safety protected from self-righteous bigots who think they have the entitlement to treat people like this?”
Littoria went on to outline her own experiences of working in the industry: “I’ve been spat on, laughed at, clicked at, snapped at, yelled at, scoffed at, and been a victim of racial slurs more than once while working in hospitality. Only on occasion was I able to get away with defending myself. Most times you let it go.”
The flipside of Pākehā employers refusing to hire indigenous folk and people of colour are the employers who hire them because they think they’ll be easier to exploit.
I worked at a bar and bistro at the Viaduct three years ago and the white employer went out of her way to hire people of colour who were on student visas. She and the head chef would then force these students to work unpaid once they’d gone over the number of hours you can work on such visas.
The head chef casually admitted all of this to me late one night while I was having my knock-off drink. That’s how messed up our industry is. There are those who’ll openly break the law because they know they can get away with it. In this case, they were getting away with racially-motivated wage theft.
I spoke out publicly on my Facebook page about what I’d seen happening at my place of work. One of my co-workers narked on me to my boss and, in retaliation, I was fired within the week.
These practices aren’t isolated or just some kind of aberration — this stuff is happening all throughout the industry. Every other week, an employer is busted for underpaying or simply not paying migrant workers here on visas.
It’s wage theft and it extends to bosses docking breaks you never took, demanding you undertake training unpaid, or just refusing to pay you the wages you’re owed. It’s costing hospo workers and other low wage earners millions of dollars every year.
But hospitality workers are fighting back. They’re speaking out.
When Wagamama in Wellington went into receivership in July, leaving its 23 workers tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket in unpaid wages and holiday pay, Soraya Edwards and another Wagamama worker, Heeni Ngapeka, of Ngāti Maniapoto, organised all the workers at their restaurant and spoke out in the media about what had happened to them. In under three weeks, they had won a $30,000 payout from Wagamama.
When hospo workers stand together, when we expose what our industry is really like, we move closer to changing our industry for the better.
As far as I’m concerned, time’s up for those greedy bosses and for the rude and racist customers who think they can treat us any way they like.
If you are experiencing racism, sexism, wage theft, exploitation/injustices as a hospo worker, or generally want to fight to make the hospitality industry a decent place to work in, flick Raise the Bar an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.