Workers at Z Energy sites across the country are subjected to abuse from customers daily. The company has protections in place, but racism and threats from customers shouldn’t be part of the job.
Aman Sidhu and Simr Kaur are behind the counter at Z Energy in Dinsdale, Hamilton, on this winter Wednesday morning. The forecourt is busy with cars – everyone pumping gas – and there is a small queue inside as customers pay for petrol, pies and coffee.
The two women, neatly dressed in blue Z uniforms, move quickly through their tasks; they smile, chat to their regulars and work the espresso machine. It is a morning of polite exchanges between staff and customers, the world as it should be, reflecting the message of a poster on a nearby wall:
“Our people have the right to do their job without being verbally or physically abused. Thank you for helping create a positive work environment by respecting our people.”
The Mutual Kindness campaign is part of Z Energy’s multi-pronged effort to keep Sidhu, Kaur and all other staff safe, and to equip them with tools and skills to deal with the threats and verbal abuse that they encounter in their work.
Because all is not as it seems this morning. Behind their smiles, the two women are quietly observing and assessing the stream of people coming through the glass doors. “I feel nervous every day, I’m thinking, ‘how is this person going to be’?” says Kaur. She and Sidhu have both suffered verbal abuse – some of it racist – from customers.
Briar Farrar, who operates a cluster of nine Z Energy sites in Hamilton, including Dinsdale, says such abuse has always been there but it’s become worse in the past 12-18 months. Incidents at her sites have doubled in that time and racial abuse has certainly increased. She has 70 staff members, about half of them recent immigrants. They’re the ones who cop the racial slurs.
In the past three months, Farrar has had 197 risk incidents reported; 147 were occasions when staff were abused, most of it ugly yelling and threats. “When we induct staff we give a strong health and safety message, we tell them they will be abused. You have to prepare people.”
But she says telling people they will be abused shouldn’t be part of the induction process for any job in Aotearoa. “It’s hard to make sense of it,” says Farrar. “My goal is to make it stop.”
She believes the first step is to raise awareness of the impact such abuse has on staff.
“We are human beings. When you say something hurtful, there is an impact. And day after day, it has a greater impact.”
Triggers for the abuse can be big things and little things: maybe the pumps or apps are not working, or someone is baffled by the pre-pay system, the toilets are closed for maintenance, or a card is declined. It all has potential to set off an unpleasant chain of events.
“We are not perfect and sometimes things go wrong. But nobody deserves to be abused for it. We are constantly thinking about what we can do better. It’s heartbreaking. My staff are the most amazing and beautiful people,” says Farrar.
Simr Kaur recounts a situation that erupted out of nowhere a few weeks ago: a woman wanted a $10 note changed into coins, these were not available and she became angry when her request was declined. Another customer joined in and backed the angry woman. They were both arguing with Kaur, shouting at her, and wouldn’t let her or her colleague serve other customers.
The woman took photos of Kaur with her phone and warned that she’d “see her after work”.
“I felt very scared, it took two to three hours for me to reset. I was scared they would come back,” says Kuar. She contacted her site manager, and received immediate support.
Kaur has also been abused for her Indian heritage: recently from a young man who she asked for ID when he wanted to buy cigarettes, another time from a man who couldn’t get into the premises one evening when the door control button wasn’t working. Both men told her to go back to where she came from.
Kaur has lived in New Zealand for three years, she’s worked for Z Energy for two. “I feel now that this is my country. It [the racial abuse] is not good. It is hard to listen to… I like my job and some customers are very nice. We try our best to understand our customers.”
Colleague Aman Sidhu, also of Indian heritage, has dealt with similar incidents. She says they don’t always have answers for customers’ questions and when that happens some people are quick to start yelling.
She’s been called a “fucking Indian” and a “fucking immigrant”. One man spending $10 on petrol said “do it fast, fucking Indian,” when she asked him what pump he was on.
One day when she was mopping the floor, a woman said to her “can you mop my floor at home?”
“It had a bad effect, I thought about it all day,” says Sidhu.
They’re actively supported by Z to respond to and manage these difficult situations. They take part in Z’s health and safety training programmes, and wear panic button pendants at all times. These link them immediately to a security company, which calls police.
At Z Energy on Hamilton’s Kahikatea Drive, site leader Piri Uruamo (Tainui, Ngāti Whātua) has also faced abuse from customers while at work. Uruamo’s site is part of Farrar’s cluster of stations. He loves his job, loves interacting with people, but doesn’t love the abuse and aggressive behaviour that he sees every day. Like Farrar, he’s noted an increase recently, and a lot of it is racial. “It’s them [the abusers]. It’s something going on with them. I don’t know why people do that to other people.”
He steps in to support staff as needed with the aim always being to de-escalate. He asks what’s going on, tries to reduce the heightened emotion, and listens to what people are saying. Sometimes he adds another line: “You are welcome to come here but if you talk like that you are not [welcome]. Most situations will be defused. If you’re not reacting to their yelling they’ve got nowhere to go with it.”
The rise in abuse statistics at Farrar’s Hamilton service stations are reflected throughout the Z Energy network. Z has a Risk Manager tool that reports on a number of issues – including abuse – each day across its 200 sites. Martin Foye, Z Energy’s head of retail operations, says abuse is becoming a key issue for frontline team members.
Like Farrar, he says it’s got worse in a relatively short time. In conversations with other retailers in the Retail NZ network he’s hearing reports of similar trends.
Although the spike started before the Covid-19 pandemic, it may have played some part in it continuing. Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says the pandemic has created an increase in anxiety and fear, which in turn has manifested into racist behaviour. “An unfortunate by-product of the pandemic, particularly in its early stages, was that certain ethnic groups were blamed and vilified for supposedly playing a role in various outbreaks.”
Z has been tracking abuse incidents for the past three years. In 2020, about 5,500 incidents were reported. In the year to date there have been more than 2,800, an increase of around 15% for the same period in 2020.
Foye says 63 of these incidents were classified as “high” where the team member was severely impacted by the incident, including potentially physical contact. Regardless of ethnicity, all staff face customer abuse. The racially charged messages – mostly directed at new New Zealanders, about 15-25% of Z’s workforce – are what Kaur and Sidhu keep hearing: “Stop taking our jobs, go back to your own country.”
Foye says there is a lot more low-level abuse that goes unreported, because it has become normalised, with sites only reporting the events that have a greater impact. He worries about the cumulative effect on staff.
“It is really challenging for us. It is easier to train staff around managing a potential fire on site than it is to train them to handle abuse.”
Like Farrar, he says most customers are fine. “A slice of the entire population comes across our forecourts, we see the best and the worst.”
Z has a strong commitment to health and safety programmes. It is a signatory to the NZ Retailers Against Racism Pledge, alongside The Warehouse Group, Foodstuffs, Mitre 10 and Countdown. The pledge acknowledges the racism and abuse faced by frontline retail workers every day, and undertakes to proactively address it.
Matau Stewart, Z Energy’s safety and well-being advisor, says the pledge is about companies sharing information, creating opportunities for retailers to get behind it, backing staff, and empowering them to call out racist behaviour. He’d like to see more retailers join up.
“If we work together, we can make a bigger impact. It’s good to have that conversation, it is a complex issue. We can’t stop people coming in [to retail premises] but we can ensure that our team members have the tools and resources to better manage abusive behaviour.”
Z has its own “We’ve Got Your Back” campaign as well as the more recent Mutual Kindness programme, the latter based on the premise that Z staff members have the right to do their job without being verbally or physically abused. The programme has three basic steps for staff to take during a confrontation, all aimed at de-escalation.
Other tools include an e-learning programme on dealing with confronting incidents, plus staff attend a monthly health and safety meeting run by site leaders.
Each Z retailer has a safety champion, the voice of the frontline teams, with a direct line to Z Energy, and national planning around safety and risk management. Stewart says safety champs want staff to feel empowered to perform at their best, to bring their true self to work.
Stories and insights are shared nationally, and staff members learn from each other. They are also offered professional counselling if needed, through an Employee Assistance Programme. And in Hamilton, Briar Farrar’s crew have all attended a resilience training programme run by the Everest Group, which offers a range of services to business.
Stewart says staff wellbeing is a focus for everyone in the group. “There is still more to do. The framework that we have implemented is working really well. Retailers are well informed with resources and tools.”
On the frontline in Dinsdale, Sidhu says that if she and her colleagues respect their customers, their customers need to respect them in turn. “We feel well supported. And we feel safe when our regular customers are here, they stand up for us.
“We start afresh each day. You do your job and you do your best. We are strong.”