Sleaze, assault and even threats of rape are all on the menu for young women who work in hospitality – so why does no one stop it?
Along with her first ever pay packet, 15-year-old Erin Thompson’s after-school and weekend job at Hungry Jack’s came with her first experience of sexual harassment.
Co-workers, some also just 15, would corner her in the dry store area or the freezer and make sexual comments about her body, leaving her scared and uncomfortable.
“They were pressuring me to engage in activity I didn't want and wasn’t interested in at all, let alone at work,” Thompson, now 24, says.
When she tried to report them, managers would brush off the incidents or tell her that security cameras weren’t working so there was no evidence of what she alleged.
“I didn’t know who [else] to go to,” she says. “These things were not in the manual or discussed in training.”
Thompson felt helpless to take it further because some of the managers also liked to hit on the youngest women – still girls, actually – and invite them to after-work parties. There they would ply them with drinks and have sex with them. It didn’t happen to her but it did to her friends. They told her – and the managers would brag about it at work.
“I didn’t really understand the gravity of what was happening, for a 25-year-old man to be having sex with drunk 14 or 15-year-old girls,” Thompson says.
During sex education classes at school later that year, she understood that the girls couldn't legally consent due to their age, that what had allegedly occurred was statutory rape, she says.
“Had we had access to that earlier in high school, I would have known; I would have gone up the [management] line.”
A statement from Hungry Jack’s said the company “had zero tolerance for any actions that harass … and strict policies concerning the behaviour of any of its employees”. Past or current employees with concerns could call the customer service hotline, the statement said.
Thompson has worked in 11 hospitality jobs since that first one. She has experienced hundreds, possibly thousands, of other frightening and humiliating experiences. It’s happened in fast-food places and big-brand coffee shops, as well as city and suburban cafes. In some workplaces, it was several times a week. In a few, it was virtually every shift. The perpetrators could be bosses or co-workers or customers.
“It is absolutely part of the reason I’ve moved around so much,” she says.
Her experiences are borne out in a national survey by the union United Voice, which found that 89 per cent of hospitality workers had experienced sexual harassment at work. (The law defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual behaviour that makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.)
Women made up 90 per cent of the 300 people surveyed. Most respondents were younger than 34 with about half (49 per cent) younger than 24.
Three-quarters said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances (73 per cent) and inappropriate touching (69 per cent). Almost nine out of 10 reported sexist remarks (87 per cent), comments on their body (85 per cent) and sexual innuendo (84 per cent).
About one in five (19 per cent) said they had been sexually assaulted.
Jennifer¹ was 18 when she started working in bars and she continued throughout her university degree. (That’s a common experience: United Voice estimates that between a third and half of hospitality workers are tertiary students.)
Everywhere she worked, Jennifer experienced harassment. The worst places, though, were the upmarket bars.
“The swankier the venue, the more bullshit goes on there, because the blokes [who work and socialise there] are paid more and think more of themselves,” says Jennifer, whose former workplaces include The Emerson.
The Melbourne mega-bar and nightclub with a reputation for exclusivity, celebrity and hard partying is owned by two Singapore-based former oil traders, with ex-AFL footballers Glenn Archer and Leigh Colbert also reportedly having an interest. It boasts four bars, private booths, rooftop lounge, 700-person capacity and a suite of membership options that give customers the cachet of priority club entry.
All this comes with a sense of entitlement, Jennifer says. “Walking through crowds and getting your arse grabbed, comments on the way you look – that happened most shifts.”
Working the VIP booths could be a nightmare of constantly being hit on “by absolute arseholes,” Jennifer says. If she complained to her manager about feeling unsafe, rather than warning or ejecting the customers, he would replace her with someone else.
“They weren’t dealing with the problem, they were just swapping me with another girl in the same role who wouldn’t complain.”
Managers themselves could be just as bad. After knock-off drinks one night at another venue, one pursued her into the women's toilets, jumped into her locked cubicle and tried to assault her, she says. She screamed and ran out.
Despite her and other women's complaints, nothing happened, partly due to the ubiquity of the behaviour in the industry and partly because of inherent dynamics of power and gender.
“Managers only hire girls they find attractive and it’s predominantly young guys in management, in positions of power,” Jennifer says. “It’s all related.”
Venue manager Kris Allan said The Emerson has robust policies and that anyone accused of sexual harassment would be immediately removed from the venue - although that procedure had never been necessary. “I believe that our exceptional policies and procedures are a testament to the lack of incidents reported in the business,” Allan says.
Fairfax Media asked him if the risque marketing of The Emerson – which includes pictures of young women in revealing clothing and events such as a recent “Ride Naked” open air exercise class - puts female staff at greater risk of sexual harassment. Allan said the Emerson had merely been a venue hired for that event, and such questions should be directed to the organisers.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins says the survey results, while shocking and horrifying, are consistent with the evidence she has been hearing on her recent listening tour around the country.
“Particularly for young women, the experience of sexual harassment and sexual assault is a lot worse than the community expects and assumes”, she says. The problem is worst in sectors where women congregate such as hospitality, and where work is often casual and insecure, Jenkins says. “Employers often just think it’s part of the deal.”
Almost half (48 per cent) of those surveyed by United Voice said their employers did not take harassment in the workplace seriously, while another 15 per cent were “unsure”.
Employees’ lack of confidence in their bosses appears to be well-founded. Peak bodies for the hospitality industry were asked to respond to the survey’s findings. They were also asked about any policy or procedural templates they offer to their combined 40,000 members as they do on other critical employment issues such as wages rates, occupational health and safety, and customer service.
Stephen Ferguson, chief executive of the Australian Hotels Association, said he did not believe the survey’s results are “representative of hotel venues”.
The Restaurant and Catering Industry Association’s chief executive John Hart was travelling and could not be contacted for comment, said its manager of policy and public affairs, James Coward.
For many workers, the business owner is involved in the harassment, either actively or tacitly. This makes it virtually impossible to complain.
When she was just 14, Cassey Whitney says she was regularly grabbed by the co-owner of the cafe where she got her first job.
“He was an adult, I was a child. I didn’t want to say anything and jeopardise my job.”
Her industry experience since, including at a string of cigar bars, has been little better. There, the bosses or their friends were frequently the perpetrators. She’s been cornered and groped by groups of men, felt up by friends of the owners.
“One offered me hundreds of dollars for sex then stalked me. The owners refused to kick him out,” Whitney says.
When the bosses discovered she’d talked to other female staff about the problem, she was verbally abused and physically intimidated. She quit after having a psychological breakdown.
“You knew you were not anything to them – boys could do whatever they wanted to you,” Whitney says. “Bosses don’t care if they’re spending money.”
Jess Walsh, United Voice’s Victorian Secretary, says the survey’s findings are an indictment of the industry, and the hospitality union will hold crisis meetings with workers and employers to find ways to make workplaces safer.
“Every day young women go to work feeling unsafe, in fear of being groped, humiliated or threatened by customers and managers,” she says.
“The culture today in many venues seems to be ‘if you don’t like it you can leave’ and ‘if you speak up then don’t come back’.”
Despite mounting evidence of a widespread problem, regulators such as the Fair Work Ombudsman, Fair Work Commission and WorkSafe Victoria/Safe Work NSW are not acting to tackle the workplace risk, a Fairfax Media investigation revealed last year.
So nothing changes.
Erin Thompson says year 10 work experience students she’s worked with at Sunbury cafe The Spotted Owl tell her that what happened to her as a raw teen recruit is happening to them at their weekend jobs at fast-food chains.
“There’s always a manager they aren’t comfortable around,” Thompson says. “It’s quite unnerving having gone through that and hearing it’s still happening; nothing’s changed.
“It’s so normalised, it’s going to take a long time to break down those roles and make it a more comfortable industry.”