A Rotorua company which exports manuka honey has lost its appeal against an Employment Relations Authority decision in which it was ordered to pay more than $25,000.

Richora Group Ltd was last month given 21 days to pay the outstanding monies after it was ruled the dismissal of former employee Mai Ying [Melody] Cheng was unjustified.

The Employment Court's decision has been a boost for Cheng who has become suicidal since abruptly losing her job in February last year.

After losing her job company director Jerry Li also posted derogatory information about Cheng on the WeChat online forum, which includes at least 48 local Chinese businesspeople.

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She told the Herald this week she felt vindicated by the court's decision and hoped it would restore her reputation in the community.

"It's been hard, because I've been struggling to kill myself the whole way along ... so I have to get my justice back, but if I live I still struggle so actually me and my husband struggle for our happiness since this case as well.

"I don't have my life anymore because I give it to this case."

She said she had been handling the job loss okay until Li posted the comments online.

"Until I was on the internet he talked about my depression saying I'm crazy and that kind of judgment, was so bad. I got fired, it's not my fault. He never paid for my salary and I still can't get anything, so that's why I got my lawyer involved."

She had been thankful for the mental health treatment she had been receiving from the local district health board.

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ROTORUA DAILY POST
15 Oct, 2018 1:36pm
2 minutes to read
The Employment Court found Richora general manager Jerry Li's comments and actions towards a former employee damaged her self-esteem and left her feeling
The Employment Court found Richora general manager Jerry Li's comments and actions towards a former employee damaged her self-esteem and left her feeling "significantly devalued". Photo / Ben Fraser

Cheng told the court she returned to work after taking a lunch break only to find the Li's had changed the locks and she couldn't get in.

She eventually got in and once reviewing CCTV discovered the Lis had got someone in to purposefully change the locks.

The company falsely believed that Cheng had gone to the IRD to complain about the company's failure to pay wages, and tax issues.

Cheng said she did talk to the Lis about non-payment of wages but had never contacted the IRD.

After being locked out, Cheng never returned to work and the Lis tried to initiate a meeting which eventually went ahead without Cheng present.

On March 20 Cheng's solicitor wrote to Richora Group alleging Cheng had been unjustifiably dismissed and "repeatedly threatened".

"You have stated that you will 'destroy' Ms Cheng and her husband's life in Rotorua and also their business. You have also said that you will ensure that nobody in Rotorua will employ Ms Cheng in the future," the letter read.

Following the letter, Jerry Li posted information to WeChat.

"A member from the community recommended his wife to work at my company and told me how tragic his wife was and how she was bullied by others, which resulted in her long term recuperation at home ... But something I would never expect happened.

"She had no sense of gratitude and turned back on us after everything I have done for her, and reported us to IRD, claiming that we haven't paid wages nor settled partners accounts."

Manuka honey export business Richora, Rotorua's Pukuatua St, was found to be guilty of unlawfully dismissing former employer Melody Cheng. Photo / Alan Gibson
Manuka honey export business Richora, Rotorua's Pukuatua St, was found to be guilty of unlawfully dismissing former employer Melody Cheng. Photo / Alan Gibson

Li, who moved from China with his wife two years ago to set up the company, later wrote: "People who are not normal and positive or defective in moral and ethics really shall not be employed. They just want more money by using this abnormal approach. I hope everyone could take it as a warning."

The Employment Relations Authority ordered Richora pay Cheng $25,913.19 for unjustifiable dismissal, wage arrears and legal costs.

They appealed the decision to the Employment Court who again ruled in Cheng's favour.

Chief Judge Christina Inglis found there were "significant deficiencies with the way in which Mr and Mrs Li dealt with matters ... The company's actions fell well below the minimum standards expected of an employer".

She said she would have ordered the Li's pay more compensation but $20,000 was all that Cheng had requested.

"I would have placed this in the high-end band, both as to loss and quantum. Nevertheless I feel constrained to limit the award to what has been sought by the defendant."

Judge Inglis labelled the extent of harm as "significant" as the Lis knew Cheng was vulnerable and axing her job so abruptly would have hit her.

Richora Group last month announced it was spending $36 million on a new honey and visitor centre in Rotorua.

In a twist, Li now says he is no longer working for Richora Group despite announcing the opening of a new $36 million honey and visitor centre on the outskirts of Rotorua last month.

Li - who today replied to the Herald's request for comment with his Richora company email - said he was "not involved with Richora Group Limited since long time ago".

"I can't help you with any information now."

Where you can get help:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234
1737 NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737