Unpublished…for now.
Featured image from ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ episode ‘Party Pooper Pants’.

All names have been changed. This piece is a work of opinion.
Identifying details of non-managerial workers in stories have been omitted for their privacy.

Content warning: Verbal abuse, racism, biohazard mention, financial instability, workplace bullying.

It is a well-known proverb amongst retail staff that retail is another cycle of hell. But with a ‘hot job market’ yearning for workers, perhaps the power was in our hands as workers to bargain a better hell. Or so I thought.

June 2022 was easily the winter of my life in more ways than one. It finally seemed that my life was coming together, a safe and cosy home and my first communications job. Then came a surprise job cut where half of us in a refugee rights NGO were told we would lose our jobs in a restructure, effective in a fortnight.* This, coming off the back of family problems, adverse experiences with New Zealand’s Social Welfare and workplace culture worries had me convinced that I needed to make a clean break and land on my feet.

The Ninth Life

But what job would hire someone in this time frame? As I struggled to get an interview for communications roles, I looked to my past as a mall worker in high school and early university, where I worked at Body Shop and Trade Aid. Those memories were fun and resulted in long term friends. I was down on my luck and down to my ninth life. What did I have to lose? My dignity and health apparently.

I was in a desperate financial situation post family estrangement. I was desperate to earn money towards my Professional Legal Studies course to be admitted to the bar. (In New Zealand, to become a lawyer requires competition of a Law undergraduate degree, a conjoint undergraduate degree, a completed Professional Legal Studies course and a Practicing Certificate. We call the PLS course, ‘Profs’.)

At the interview, I was met by Tamar, an energetic lady in upper management who assured me that at the end of the day, we were working in a pandemic and that this was an abnormal situation to expect us to be extraordinary. That all we needed to do was sell clothes and have fun. I was grateful to have a full time job, but was woefully underprepared for the coming four months. I ended up working at an upscale women’s boutique in a plush mall at the centre of an affluent electorate. A class warfare epicentre. Visitors included wardrobe stylists for the Discovery Channel, Gilda from The Real Housewives of Auckland, actress Elizabeth Banks via her assistant and alumnae of my old high school.

“You’re a Rich Girl, and You’ve Gone Too Far…”

What customers don’t know is that most clothes for a store are stored in ‘offsite’, in a concrete maze behind the mall. This maze would be the site for conversations with other retail staff to share stories in solidarity and was the home to weird drawings and marks on the wall, which reminded me of a prison. The fast cycles and large volumes of clothing waste were also horrendous. This later became my secret place to cry.

One of the first few days of working was a cattle branding initiation. A customer, whom I nicknamed in my head as ‘Jocelyn Wildenstein’ would come in at least thrice a week. A short lady with blonde hair in soft curls and bloodshot skin with pumps and pumps of filler underneath. She dressed with clashing name brand logos. As though the Tommy Hilfiger bag had afforded her the opportunity to see me as the coolie. She’d come in with “will somebody fucking help me?!”, screeching and rolling her eyes, stomping her feet and making a splashing motion at me with her (thankfully lidded) hot coffee. In hindsight, it would have been better to hide and have her lose face with this tantrum. Because when I told her the mohair cardigan was sold out in her size, she threw a wooden coathanger at me in a fit of rage.

I later learnt that this customer expressed displeasure at being served by workers with a ‘foreign’ accent.

I remember a customer who was irate at staff asking for a miniskirt size. Another customer approached me to ask a quick question on where to find the changing rooms, as I was answering their question, the previous customer said, “look at that stupid bitch, she already forgot to get my skirt”. Another said told me, “no wonder you look so abnormal. You’re Asian. All Asians look abnormal.”

Most ladies who worked at our boutique took on the role out of necessity. The customers knew this. Some customers would insist on contacting regional managers and Head Office for us to lose our jobs so that “you’d end up homeless and I’d see you on the street and laugh at you”.

Even young professionals my age would yell at staff about something as marginal as shoe sizes. Even though a young professional could be two missed paychecks away from a place like this.

There were many, many more stories like these.

You would think that in this environment, staff would stick together. For the most part, we really did. But one girl in the crew would really mock the fact that I had a law degree and was working in retail to save for my studies. She would constantly criticise what kind of lawyer I’d be if I didn’t swear and yell at the customers in return.
Good idea, I will behave angrily, increasing the unpredictably of the situation and risk my paycheck to paycheck lifestyle and living stability(!). Eventually, my confidence would be eroded, but I held on to the fact that being angry and argumentative doesn’t make a lawyer, but being kind, observant, gathering information and striking at the best possible moment does. I’ll get to that later.

Sourced from ‘Bloody Disgusting’. When I first watched ‘Alien’, the other week, I was convinced that the film is a critique on the ill treatment of workers at the cost of corporate interests.

“All Other Interests as Secondary”

Have you ever seen that movie, ‘Alien’? Where the crew is stuck in space with a murderous alien in their ship with the science officer Ash, who insists on keeping the alien with the crew’s safety and “all other interests as secondary”?

Swap alien with profit. And that spaceship with the mall. Upper management was nonchalant about abusive customers, saying that “aww they’re just having a bad day” as if a bad day can absolve one of racism and wishing homelessness on to others. It also became apparent that an individual in management had anti-science views with regards to the pandemic when I overheard her encouraging customers to break health regulations. Perhaps it couldn’t get worse.

We would have a new manager, let’s call her Natalia. Natalia had an interesting career with a range of skills ranging from fashion design, fashion buying and cabin crew. She was an effective manager at first, but it became apparent that pressure she had faced from upper management, conflict with Visual Merchandising (people who arrange displays and mannequins) and disrespect towards her Asian ethnicity had caused her to bully the staff.

Natalia had a system where all staff would be ranked on our individual profits. The top five would go into a draw to win a prize. These lists were not really for the top five, it was to examine who was not making that list so they would be reprimanded. I was once the most senior girl working a shift and was yelled at by Natalia for the other girls’ not being in the leader board. So, my own top five spot didn’t grant immunity for the aggression.

When met with suggestions, Natalia would confront other staff members about questioning her authority.

Natalia ended up working beyond her contract with six-day weeks. She would eventually collapse due to exhaustion.

After this, she would force me to do her managerial tasks including filling a manager’s end of week business report. My hours would be extended with no notice, on the day of arrival and I would be called on my days off to cover shifts. Then came the comments criticising my weight! Termination was frequently threatened.

If we broke a rule, for instance, if I had to take leave on short notice or if I was blamed for a shoplifting customer, I would be punished by being made to do unpleasant tasks, getting reprimanded at staff meetings and getting yelled at in front of customers. Natalia threatened to prevent me from going to my Law school graduation. After cleaning menstrual blood from the changing rooms and being made to take out the trash again, I had a little cry in offsite, thinking that I was at my limit, it was time to stick up for myself in my own way. And not through reckless anger. I bought an employment law textbook and was not afraid to use it.

The Escape Hatch

After the first abusive customer when I started, I made an application to join the retail union, but realised that getting a negotiator would be impossible unless others were union members. Most were part timers, migrant workers, or students who at the time were not members, either that the working conditions did not affect them that much as a part time worker, or out of fear of the workplace retaliating.

With the help of another Law grad friend, I drafted up a sternly worded email listing the main grievances of working at the boutique, contract wording and the legal rules which determined that this behaviour constituted workplace bullying and negligence towards staff. The minimum notice period for resignations was a month, my aim was that I would use the email to negotiate the resignation period to be a day.

I was swiftly granted my wish. But not without a last ‘hurrah’ from Natalia. Natalia was also mysteriously resigning that week. I publicly rejected a forced hug. Before she left, she prepared references for staff, cupcakes, and macarons in labelled bags. Some staff were purposefully not included. As a result, staff with grievances were not believed by the staff who received the gifts. One last divide and conquer, eh?

The Mutiny

There were slivers of happiness in that miserable time. I adored the company of most of my other co-workers, they were kind, cheerful and we’d look out for each other. On night shifts, we’d plug in rap music and have time to relax. Babies would wave at us and play in the store. I loved helping people with different body types feel more comfortable in their own style and self-expression. I once helped a lovely lady, accompanied by her boyfriend, to pick a dress for an evening date where the boyfriend confided to me that he would propose to her. A sweet girl wanted a special dress for her birthday for a celebration with her partner and friends- her first proper birthday after running away from an abusive home. Ironically, it was these happy experiences which taught me that no job is worth copping constant aggression at the cost of life milestones and happiness for ourselves too.

My exit from the boutique was an offer to work in the public sector. Funnily enough, I would research employment law topics and very similar cases of exploited young workers in my new role. I was supportive of workers but being in the thick of a constantly bullying environment really taught me what that power imbalance met and that this environment was not unique to the boutique. For any worker, know this, being grateful doesn’t mean you could compromise your safety and mental health at any cost, and do know that most cases regarding chain stores and workers’ rights are successful and tend to be in the favour of the worker. It just takes that confidence from fellow staff and loved ones and rights awareness to be able to find that confidence again.

More workers left the store after I left, citing similar exploitative behaviour from management. We were moving on with our lives, with the girls moving on to complete their studies or moving to other roles in the fashion industry. And we won’t take a stand for these things in our own professions, lives, or teams. We understand that there are many ways to stick up for ourselves. And we are helping others realise this too.

Keeara the former Retail Worker vs Keeara the Advocate 🙂

*Holy moly. Another story for another time.