Covid-19 has created an increase in racism towards retail workers. Z Energy’s Matau Stewart spoke to The Spinoff about his personal experiences with racism, and why some of New Zealand’s biggest retail companies are proactively addressing abuse of their staff.
When New Zealand moved into lockdown it quickly became apparent how essential frontline retail staff are to the economy and how often their work is taken for granted. As panic-buying, anxiety and tensions built, Countdown staff reported 600% more instances of abuse and violence. The Covid-19 crisis also saw a similar rise in racism. Race relations commissioner Meng Foon reported “a rise in bullying and harassment of people of Chinese and Asian descent here in New Zealand.” He was also concerned about the rise of racism in workplace bullying post-lockdown. Auckland’s second lockdown has seen another spike in the abuse of retail staff, according to Z Energy’s data.
In acknowledgement of the racism and abuse faced by people working in retail, a group of New Zealand’s largest retail companies have created an anti-racism commitment, the NZ Retailers Against Racism pledge. The pledge, signed by Z Energy, The Warehouse Group, Foodstuffs, Mitre 10 and Countdown, sits alongside the Human Rights Commission’s latest anti-racism campaigns, Racism is no Joke and Voices of Racism. It’s designed to offer guidance and support to their frontline workers on “what to do and say in the face of a racist attack, and how to keep themselves safe, defuse the situation, and remain safe and well”.
It’s important that companies are not turning a blind eye to the daily racism and verbal abuse suffered by their staff, says Gerri Ward, Z Energy’s head of community and sustainability, and convenor of the group. She explains the objective of the campaign is two-fold: “to let our Z whānau know we have their back, and to communicate how it feels to be empowered by not turning your back on prejudice.”
Matau Stewart has worked at Shell and now Z Energy for the past 20 years. He started as a retail worker at Waikuku’s Shell station in North Canterbury, and is now Z Energy’s safety and wellbeing adviser. Stewart spoke to The Spinoff about his own experiences of racism and supporting retail staff through the pressure of Covid-19.
The Spinoff: Why is Z’s commitment to this campaign important?
Matau Stewart: I understand how our retail staff feel with abusive customers and racism, it’s something that I’ve also had first-hand experience of. It’s never a nice thing, and we try to deal with it the best we can. I’m Māori, and I’ve been racially profiled since I was young. To some extent, it’s been normalised for myself, and I’m sure that’s the same for other staff who have been in a similar position.
Have you noticed a rise in racism this year?
There was a spike in abuse, and often when we couldn’t provide for what customers wanted, they got a bit gnarly. We have definitely seen a rise in incident reports from our site teams.
Racial abuse is never something people should just have to deal with, and that’s so frustrating it’s something that’s become normalised.
I remember a week where we had a quite a few changes in fuel prices, and there was one customer who was absolutely livid. He was asking, “Why are you putting up the prices again, you black so-and-so.” I was so taken aback, and at that time our training was to just de-escalate the situation.
Another customer stood up for me, and this rude customer left. And while it was a negative experience, I ended up leaving feeling really great about that experience, because someone had stood up for me.
How did the anti-racism pledge come about?
A couple of years ago, we did a survey of site teams and asked some questions about their wellbeing. We found that some of them still didn’t feel supported in ways that were relevant to them and that we needed to talk to our people more.
This was especially true after the Christchurch mosque attacks, when we were looking at how, as an organisation, we could do more for our people. With this programme, and the ‘we’ve got your back’ programme, we wanted our staff to come to work feeling safe. We wanted them to have the knowledge that they’re working in a safe environment.
How does the pledge create that environment for retail staff?
This pledge is us taking a strong stance, and backing our people to handle difficult situations. In the past, we’ve had some training in dealing with aggressive customers, but with this pledge, it’s empowering us to say something beyond just backing away from it. If the customer isn’t treating you the way you should be treated, then staff should feel empowered to call it out. Say something like, “I would love to serve you but if you continue to treat me like this, I will refuse to serve you.”
This pledge also connects us with other businesses, and is a starting point. It’s the first step in the journey, and while some people might be uncertain or apprehensive about it, we’re still learning and still trying to better support our staff. When you feel like your organisation is backing you, you’re more empowered to stand up.
How can a customer be a good ally if they see retail staff being verbally abused or harassed?
The best thing that you can do is speak up and jump into the conversation, but keep your focus on the staff. Ask them if they are OK. Don’t look at or interact with the aggressive customer. That’s a better way to support the staff, and stops the customer continuing on with that behaviour.
The way I look at retail abuse is to look at the staff member as my kid, my family or my whānau. Would I want someone speaking to them like that? I’ve heard many stories from staff who have had aggressive customers, and other customers have simply stayed in the store with them. You don’t have to even say anything, just stay there until the staff feels safe.
What changes would you like to see in stopping racism in our community?
We want to enhance the lives of our people and our community. One way to do that is to equip our people with the training to deal with incidents. But in terms of the wider community, that’s harder. We don’t know what’s happened in the aggressor’s personal life that’s made them this way, or act in this way.
But what we can do as an organisation, with this pledge, is to bring awareness to that community that behaving like this is not okay. What we can do is bring some light to it and speak up about it.
What are better ways employers show employees that they back them?
Organisations need to be bold, brave and lean into the space. As a network of businesses, we have an opportunity to commit to the people that work with us. What does that look like? Well, we are still learning, but there is always more we can build on through different communication channels.
Ask your people, “do you feel supported about conversations around this topic?” I’ve come from a retail site, and if an organization is asking relevant questions, you feel like you are being listened to. That’s a good place to start.
This content was created in paid partnership with the Z Energy. Learn more about our partnerships here.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.