Hospitality chain the Good Group - owners of upmarket waterfront restaurants such as Botswana Butchery and White & Wongs - has made half of its more than 300 staff redundant amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Its distraught former workers say they feel let down by the decision, and that getting rid of them part-way through the 12-week wage subsidy period was "cold".

But Good Group says the pandemic has decimated its business, and it kept as many staffers as it could.

READ MORE:
Budget 2020: Government's Covid 19 wage subsidy scheme extended by 8 weeks, now up to $14b
Budget 2020: Live: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Covid 19 recovery and Govt's $50b response: 'It will be painful'
Covid 19 coronavirus: NZ Couriers claim drivers' wage subsidy
Premium - Covid 19 coronavirus: 'Courier firm owner kept $70,000 wage subsidy from staff'

Advertisement

Most of the 150 affected staff - based at 14 venues in Auckland and Queenstown - are migrant workers, and are now unable to get new jobs because their visas are invalid. They do not qualify for welfare.

"Although people are saying 'go home' we don't have that option. If I want to get to Argentina right now I'll have to build a boat and sail there," said Camila Rouco Oliva, 28, who was a waitress at White & Wong's in Queenstown.

"And anyway, I've been here two years, this is my home now. Other people have been here five years, they were applying for residency and now that's totally stopped."

Eight former workers contacted the Herald with complaints about the Good Group's process.

Auckland's Botswana Butchery in the Ferry Building, is one of 14 in the Good Group portfolio. Photo / File
Auckland's Botswana Butchery in the Ferry Building, is one of 14 in the Good Group portfolio. Photo / File

They said they were unable to give feedback on the redundancy proposals given the short timeframe, and that decisions about why certain people kept their jobs while others were cut were not explained.

They also raised concerns about their wage subsidy payments. Documents show the group took the subsidy for 345 staff, at a total of $2.3 million.

Payslips show the former workers received four weeks of the subsidy, at a net rate of $585 per week. Their final week they were paid for only three days, with payments ending the day of their redundancy.

Employers who took the subsidy early - like Good Group, which applied on March 20 - were at that time required to undertake use their best endeavours to retain their employees named in the application on at least 80 per cent of their regular income for the period of the subsidy.

Advertisement

That rule has since been updated so that employers must retain the relevant employees in employment if they take the subsidy.

Chloe Ann-King, who runs the Raise the Bar campaign to improve hospitality workers' conditions, said even if Good Group pays back the extra subsidy money, its decision seemed to her to go against statutory good faith provisions.

"It would have cost them almost nothing to keep those staff on until the end of the wage subsidy period," she said. "They could have said, we can't keep you on full wages, but we can pay you this."

Owner of Good Group, Russell Gray said it had done everything it could to keep as many staff as possible.

"The new normal will see us operating at 30 to 50 per cent of what we'd expect," he said. "By prudently managing through this crisis we have saved 150 jobs."

Gray said the group had made decisions based on feedback from venue managers as to who they believed were the best skilled people to run businesses in the new normal. He said the process was fair and reasonable.

He did not answer questions about whether the subsidy for the redundant staff would be paid back to the Government, saying only that Good Group's total staff costs paid during the period of the subsidy far exceed the total amount of wage subsidies received.

"The wage subsidy on its own will not be enough to save many businesses who have to meet many other costs with little or no revenue," he said.

Raise The Bar founder Chloe Ann King says the Good Group's decision doesn't make sense. Photo / Supplied
Raise The Bar founder Chloe Ann King says the Good Group's decision doesn't make sense. Photo / Supplied

Employment law advocate Ashleigh Fechney said by law, if an employee raises a reasonable alternative to redundancy then the employer has to consider it.

"In my mind the wage subsidy is a reasonable alternative," she said. "It's important to remember that the subsidy isn't just about keeping employees on, but it gives employers more time to assess the impact. Any decisions made before it ends are premature."

Good Group owner Russell Gray and business partner Al Spary, at the opening of Harbourside in 2013. Photo / File
Good Group owner Russell Gray and business partner Al Spary, at the opening of Harbourside in 2013. Photo / File

Oliva, a lawyer in her home country, said they were looking at ways to challenge the decision made by Good Group, but it was difficult without income. Many of the workers were relying on Queenstown Lakes District Council for food vouchers.

"Luckily my landlord is kind but he won't have patience forever," she said. "I don't know what I will do after that."

One of the hardest parts was the company's communication, she said. Some staff told the Herald they hadn't even had a "are you ok" message from their former managers.

"Most of us are sitting at home, confused. It's painful. When you work for so long for someone you expect a bit of respect but this was cold."

The other restaurants affected included Sardine, Burger Boy, Harbourside, and Harry's Pool Bar.

The venues are owned by Good Group and its subsidiaries, Safari Hospitality and Maritime Hospitality.

According to official advice to Cabinet released in last Friday's document dump, there's potentially 380,000 foreigners and migrant workers in New Zealand.