Humiliated cafe worker wins $10k compensation

By Ben Chapman-Smith

Roasted Addiqtion cafe in Kingsland, as seen in April 2008. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Roasted Addiqtion cafe in Kingsland, as seen in April 2008. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

An Auckland café owner has been ordered to pay his former head chef $10,000 in compensation after allegedly threatening to ruin her application for permanent residence and then sacking her unfairly.

Talent Bean, which trades as Roasted Addiqtion Cafe, has been found guilty by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) of unjustifiably dismissing Prema D'Souza in April this year.

Its list of reasons for eventually firing D'Souza included her lack of knowledge about different types of tofu and her insistence on listening to Indian music and speaking Hindi.

The company, whose sole director and shareholder is Yonglin (Vincent) Shan, has been told to pay D'Souza $10,000 compensation, $1,848 in lost wages, and $3,500 to cover costs of the ERA investigation.

"Ms D'Souza suffered humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to her feelings as a result of her unjustifiable dismissal," the ERA Disciplinary Tribunal said in its decision.

"She and her husband both gave evidence about the financial hardship they suffered and the need to obtain a loan to pay living expenses as a result of the dismissal."

ERA member Anna Fitzgibbon said the couple also gave evidence of the significant stress the dismissal had on their relationship and family.

D'Souza is an Indian immigrant who came to New Zealand with her husband and son in October 2010 "in the hope of securing a better future for the family in New Zealand".

After training in professional cookery, D'Souza started working as a sous chef at Roasted Addiqtion Cafe in Kingsland late last year.

Her employment problems started when the café was sold to Talent Bean in November and owner Shan took over running it with members of his family.

Shan had limited experience in the hospitality industry prior to purchasing the café, Fitzgibbon said.

"Mr Shan's relevant experience before purchasing the café was limited to washing dishes, filleting fish and chopping meat."

Soon after, the head chef, kitchen hand and head waiter left and D'Souza was promoted to head chef until she was fired four months later.

Her dismissal came suddenly, after an incident on Easter Sunday (April 8) when Shan's father Jimmy told D'Souza to ice some freshly-baked cookies.

When D'Souza said she could not do so right then, Jimmy allegedly became angry and shoved the hot baking tray of cookies at her.

When D'Souza arranged a meeting with Shan to discuss the incident and other concerns, he allegedly took her list of issues, laughed and threw it on the table.

The tribunal was told that Shan refused to discuss D'Souza concerns, and threatened to dismiss her and ruin her application for permanent residence.

After then being accused of stealing food from the café the next day, D'Souza received an email containing two unexpected warning letters.

The letters raised a number of past issues, accusing D'Souza of arguing with Shan, failing to order the bread on one occasion, and food stock control.

When D'Souza denied the accusations, she received another email sacking her.

In the ERA's investigation meeting, Shan and his family told the ERA D'Souza had wasted food, did not know the different types of tofu and how to store it, and insisted on listening to Indian music and speaking Hindi which affected customers.

Fitzgibbon said almost none of these issues had ever been raised with D'Souza.

She found D'Souza had in no way earned any disciplinary action whatsoever, let alone warnings or a dismissal.

"Ms D'Souza requested a meeting with her employer to discuss matters of concern to her, following an unsettling incident. This was the appropriate way in which to approach her concerns.

"The response by Mr Shan on behalf of Talent Bean was harsh and unjustifiable."

Talent Bean's actions in issuing warnings and a dismissal by email without discussion were not those of a fair and reasonable employer, she said.

Roasted Addiqtion cafe in Kingsland is a separate establishment to Roasted Addiqtion Roastery in the nearby suburb of Morningside.

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