Workplace harassment, assault and rape threats rife for women in WA hospitality

Left, Kate Heyworth and right, Pippa Canavan.

The West Australian

Kate Heyworth was just 19 and working in a Perth bar when a customer backed her into a corner because “he wanted to know what I smelt like”.

His punishment? A one-week ban.

Soon after, still working in the same job, a customer threatened her with rape and murder in the bar carpark.

The response of her boss? She still had to lock up that night.

“The managers did not offer me support, rather, left a very young 19-year-old to try and hold it together while still closing up the venue for the night,” she recalled this week, years after the fact.

Kate Heyworth.
Kate Heyworth. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

Ms Heyworth was one of about a dozen women working in WA’s bars, clubs, restaurants and pubs who shared their stories of sexual harassment with The Sunday Times. They revealed the realities of being a woman behind the bar and whether the MeToo movement had made a difference in an industry where being friendly to customers who often have lowered inhibitions and impaired judgment was often considered to be part of the job.

For some, the recent case of Sydney bar manager Annabel Bassil, who took a man to court after he slapped her bottom at work, offered some hope this could be the industry’s MeToo moment. It was, said one hospitality veteran, “a small win for girls in the industry”.

Ms Bassil won in court last month after a 41-year-old man pleaded guilty to common assault over the 2019 incident, which had left the then 22-year-old in tears.

But Ms Bassil later vented her frustration with those who told her she overreacted and customers who think a friendly smile equates to an invitation.

“Almost exactly a year ago, while I was working in a pub, a male customer smacked me on my bum,” she wrote on Facebook after her court win.

“I had had no previous interaction with this customer, he simply walked in, saw me and hit me, to which he attempted to justify by saying that it was fine because he had a wife … This event had a knock-on affect on me questioning my worth and caused my mental health to deteriorate, as well as it leading me to really dislike working in a pub, which was all I had done since I was 17.

“I have said from the beginning that it could have been worse. And yes, it very much could have been. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong. It was. I know there will be some people that will read this and roll their eyes and think this is over dramatic.

Annabel Bassil was assaulted while working at a bar.
Annabel Bassil was assaulted while working at a bar. Credit: Facebook / Annabel Bassil/Facebook / Annabel Bassil

“Don’t worry, I had a number of males around me imply that they thought I was overreacting and wasting my time which only made this situation more overwhelming.

“Pubs can be a tough place to work in, especially for a female. We are constantly objectified, told that we would ‘look prettier if we smile’ and that because you poured them a beer, you owe them something and that your sole purpose of being there is to be something nice to look at.

“So please, guys in the industry, I ask, please look out for your female co-workers and do not discard their feelings if they are ever being made to feel uncomfortable by a customer. And remember if a girl smiles at you, pours you a beer or tells you to ‘have a good day’, this does not mean she wants your number, to sleep with you or even engage in a conversation with you and it absolutely in no way means that you can touch her.”

Ms Bassil’s case is an outlier and anecdotally many similar incidents go unreported. But the part of her story that rang true for some in the industry was the way in which her concerns were dismissed by others.

Ms Heyworth still works in the industry, albeit now at an “amazing” southern suburbs venue where her safety takes priority. But while she sees encouraging signs that some venues are doing the right thing, others remain stuck in a past where dismissive responses like “at least you didn’t get hurt”, “it was just a slap” or “boys will be boys” remain commonplace.

“I believe that more needs to change,” she said. “While I praise the new generations of venue managers and hospitality workers for breaking the old rules, some venues still refuse to break away from the gross tradition of treating female bartenders as meat.”

Bartender Pippa Canavan.
Bartender Pippa Canavan. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

Pippa Canavan works at a popular Northbridge small bar with supportive management. Even so, she said, being made to feel uncomfortable by a customer is a regular occurrence.

“I would be lucky to go for a month without having a customer make me feel uncomfortable and at 27, with 10 years experience, I do not consider myself a sensitive person,” she said.

“Some patrons have trouble understanding that it is literally our job to be friendly and make conversation, and seem to think that gives them license to make sexual comments or advances. I am lucky enough to work at a venue where we are allowed to speak our minds towards these customers and know that I will have support from my manager, but I have worked in other venues where this is certainly not the case.”

The scale of sexual harassment among bar staff is hard to grasp because there is not always an obvious reporting system. Staff may report an incident to their managers or they may not, while serious incidents may or may not be reported to the police.

Protestors at a #MeToo rally outside the Trump International Hotel.
Protestors at a #MeToo rally outside the Trump International Hotel. Credit: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

A survey by union Hospo Voice offers some clues. It found 89 per cent of hospitality workers surveyed in Victoria had been sexually harassed at work and 19 per cent had been sexually assaulted.

While men are by no means immune from sexual harassment in the industry, overwhelmingly those surveyed by Hospo Voice — 90 per cent— were women. Similarly when The Sunday Times appealed for stories of sexual harassment in WA, those who responded were almost exclusively women.

In the Hospo Voice survey nearly three-quarters of workers said they had experienced unwanted advances and inappropriate touching, while almost 90 per cent had been the target of sexist comments.

To put that into perspective, a broader survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission found 33 per cent of Australians had experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years.

These numbers support the anecdotal evidence that rates of sexual harassment in the hospitality industry are higher than average.

That might make sense, given the number of risk factors that could make bars, pubs or restaurants a breeding ground for sexual harassment.

Dark corners, late nights and a young, casualised workforce whose need for money could motivate them to keep quiet are more conducive to bad behaviour than an office building.

Dark corners, late nights and a young, casualised workforce whose need for money could motivate them to keep quiet are more conducive to bad behaviour than an office building

The picture painted by those who shared their stories with The Sunday Times was an environment in which bar workers had to routinely tune out inappropriate comments and felt they had to be on their guard for more serious behaviour. One woman, speaking anonymously, said she had endured such “violent verbal abuse” that any woman “with the correct upbringing maybe might have changed industries a long time ago”.

Another said she was sometimes made to feel “silly” when she raised concerns with venue security.

“There is definitely still harassment and unwanted attention from customers towards female staff members, whether it’s comments directly to them, to other staff members about them or to their mates about them,” she said.

“Groping is 100 per cent still a thing and comes from both male and female patrons, and as a female bartender I always feel uneasy and uncomfortable about going into the crowds to collect dirty glassware.

I often feel silly for speaking up to security and asking them to remove them as, most of the time, those patrons won’t be removed and security just laughs at you. As if it’s OK because it’s expected? It can also trigger anxiety attacks and a downfall in mental health.”

Customers are not always the problem. As in any workplace, sexual harassment by bosses and co-workers can happen. Many of the same factors that can allow harassment by customers to flourish — alcohol, late nights and a young workforce — may also make sexual harassment by colleagues more likely, as does the after-hours socialising that is common in the industry.

Australian Hotels Association CEO Bradley Woods.
Australian Hotels Association CEO Bradley Woods. Credit: Daniel Wilkins/The West Australian

Australian Hotels Association WA chief executive Bradley Edwards said while there was “no excuse for harassment or predatory behaviour”, the nature of the work could open the door to bad behaviour.

“Hospitality being different to an office environment quite often means that there’s social engagements or interaction that sometimes leads members of the workforce to have connections that are more casual and less official. Sometimes these engagements then can lead people to believe that the circumstances of the relationship are more friendship than they are professional,” he said.

“That sometimes leads people to forget about what is appropriate and what’s not appropriate. And it blurs the lines, which makes it complicated.”

Ms Canavan said sexual harassment by co-workers could be “just as bad if not worse” than by customers. “It can be very difficult to stand up for yourself against male co-workers who are often more senior in the business and who have strong personal connections to managers, owners … when you know you are going to have to work closely with them five days a week,” she said.

“The worst offenders tend to think that because you are friends, have known each other a long time, that the rules of appropriate behaviour do not apply to them.”

Another veteran of the industry, who has worked as everything from glassy to venue manager, recently quit after an incident she described as the “cherry on the cake”.

“One restaurant’s manager didn’t know how to handle his own work stress,” she said. “So during service he was rude, belligerent, and completely unapproachable. Later on, once service was over, he’s clocked off, he’s smiling and even though he’s spent the night saying things to me like ‘get the f–k out of my way’, he’s joyfully showing me a pic of his penis bent in half and asks, ‘C-ck or balls?’ I work in a man’s industry. Anyone telling you otherwise is a man.

“So I’ve been groomed, and I mean groomed, to be able to hear these types of things and consider them as normal. But apparently when you get pushed so much you give up. I resigned the following week. The fight’s not over, it hasn’t even begun in my eyes.”

Bartender Pippa Canavan.
Bartender Pippa Canavan. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has heard bad stories from hospitality workers across the country as part of her work. That includes a female bartender in Darwin who was shocked when her apparently supportive male co-workers played down her harassment by a customer and a male employee who was concerned that he had been “told to flirt” by his boss. But she sees some signs things are improving.

Industry-led action helps, she said, but it was not enough for staff members to be educated without broader societal change.

“I am optimistic that as a country as a whole we are treating sexual harassment more seriously,” she said.

The consensus among WA bar workers who shared their thoughts with The Sunday Times was that conditions were not great but getting better, thanks in part to the MeToo movement and the spotlight it has shone on sexual harassment and assault.

Women said they were more confident now of being believed and that their concerns would be heard.

“With regards to the MeToo movement, things are definitely different to when I first started working in pubs,” one female bartender said. “I think the main difference is that we are much less afraid to call out toxic male behaviour and feel better supported by our male colleagues.”

Another said although she thought MeToo had not made harassment or assault at work less likely, “as a whole we are recognising the importance of speaking up and not brushing it off”.

“I feel like now maybe if something happened and I got angry or upset people would be more inclined to listen and take it seriously but overall our culture hasn’t changed much,” she said.

Kate Jenkins.
Kate Jenkins. Credit: unknown/Twitter

There were opposing views around whether the influx of small bars into Perth had made a positive or negative change. Some suggested the smaller venues were less likely to have HR processes in place.

Others suggested the new generation of owners were more likely to create a positive working environment.

Mr Edwards believes the trend is moving in the right direction. Harassment in the hospitality industry is, he said, a global issue.

“I think that the incidents of it have certainly been less,” he said.

“The work that has been done by the relevant government agencies that deal with these types of matters have done a lot more work in education, in expanding awareness around harassment and the obligations.

“It’s a centuries-old problem but in the recent decade it’s been brought more to the forefront that it’s an unacceptable practice.”

Ms Canavan said despite it all, there had probably never been a better time to be a woman in the industry. “I would say that the MeToo movement has definitely had an effect on the hospitality industry here in Perth,” she said.

“I can only speak from my experience in the small bar community, but I would say the attitudes towards sexual harassment have changed over the last few years. It is taken far more seriously than it used to be and there seems to be more retribution for the offenders — even if it is only socially.

“People in the industry are more willing to listen to and support victims than they were five years ago. This being said, harassment is still rife and a big issue for most women who work behind a bar, both from customers and from co-workers.”

Ms Heyworth felt similarly.

“I believe that more needs to change. While I praise the new generations of venue managers and hospitality workers for breaking the old rules, some venues still refuse to break away from the gross tradition of treating female bartenders as meat.

“I am extremely lucky to now work in a venue where my safety is more important then keeping a patron happy. Despite being a manager and getting the ‘Really? Where’s the male one then?’, occasionally, I think I’m now lucky to work where I do.”