$8000 for employee after nono tapped with bucket in alleged sexual harassment incident

By Contributor

By Tracy Neal, Open Justice multimedia journalist, Nelson-Marlborough

A former meat works employee who claimed a co-worker sexually harassed her when he tapped her on the backside with a bucket has been awarded $8000 compensation to help restore her sense of dignity.

Kawaa Te Wiki said in a written complaint following the incident in 2019, that "applying a bucket to my bottom" made her feel violated, robbed of her dignity and unsafe.

The Employment Relations Authority awarded compensation in relation to a personal grievance raised by Te Wiki over how aspects of the complaint were handled.

Te Wiki, who declined the offer of name suppression, was a seasonal worker at Blue Sky Meats near Invercargill from January 2018 until the end of the 2019 season.

She had complained about the co-worker's conduct for several weeks leading up to the May 10 incident which triggered a formal complaint over alleged sexual harassment.

Te Wiki stated she was making the complaint for herself and for all the women employed at the meat works.

An external investigation later found the incident did not amount to misconduct or sexual harassment, and that there was insufficient evidence to corroborate an earlier allegation that the co-worker had "pushed a sheep carcass" into her breast.

When Te Wiki was on a cleaning task her co-worker, who cannot be named, walked past behind her. She felt what she thought was his hand touching her bottom. She described being shocked, confused and perplexed about his behaviour, but said nothing to him.

She then told her supervisor, who after viewing CCTV footage, said it was a bucket and not the co-worker's hand which had touched her.

Te Wiki said in evidence it was relayed to her in a dismissive manner "like it didn't matter", but that it did matter.

Notes made by the company's HR manager during his exchanges with Te Wiki record her saying the co-worker had "shoved the bucket up her arse" and "rammed the bucket into her behind", in a manner that was deliberate and with a measure of force that was sexual in manner.

After she had told her supervisor what happened, he said he would speak with the co-worker, but later told Te Wiki he could not find him and would follow up after the weekend.

On the Monday, Te Wiki was called into the supervisor's office. The operations manager and a union delegate were present, and Te Wiki was asked if she wanted to proceed with her complaint. She confirmed she did but was told the video evidence showed there was "nothing in it".

Te Wiki repeated that she would never accept that anyone could do that to her and insisted that her complaint be continued.

She was told to provide a detailed letter of complaint, and was then sent back to work on the slaughter board, with the co-worker she had complained about.

The company disputed it was dismissive of her complaint, or that it tried to persuade her not to proceed with it.

As the process continued, Te Wiki was moved from the slaughter board into the work's offal section. She felt she was being punished for having made the complaint as it was she who was moved and not the co-worker.

It was during this time that the company appointed an independent investigator to look into her complaint. It was found that the co-worker had "tapped her on the backside" with a bucket in an attempt to notify her that he wanted to get past in a narrow walkway, but it was not of a sexual nature.

The investigation concluded that the conduct was not capable of being characterised as misconduct or serious misconduct, as it happened in circumstances where it was accepted that "staff needed to physically touch one another when in close proximity, to prevent potential accidents".

The result was reported to Te Wiki in June 2019, by which time the season had ended. She did not return to work in November that year when the season resumed.

In deciding on remedies, ERA member Philip Cheyne said Te Wiki's evidence showed she was very upset by the whole process she described as "a nightmare".

She felt pressured, disbelieved and powerless, and considered that the employer had tried to make light of the incident and to minimise it "as a joke".

She said incident that triggered the formal complaint made her feel "sick to her stomach" and brought back the pain of the earlier incident. She described feeling "let down" by Blue Sky Meats, and that she had come up against a "brick wall of managers" who had already made up their minds.

Cheyne did not find this to be the case, nor was there discrimination around Te Wiki being reassigned to another section, where co-workers were women.

"The assignment was a material factor in Ms Te Wiki's distress, to some extent.

"There is no professional or medical evidence of significant or long-lasting harm. I conclude that Ms Te Wiki can establish a low level of loss or harm attributable to her personal grievance against BSM," said Cheyne in awarding $8000 compensation in recognition of what she had been through.