A quick and clean exit

I was off social media for much of yesterday avoiding spoilers for the Royal Rumble (WORTH IT) and missed this rather, um, celebratory article at NBR about Wellington restaurant Five Boroughs’ “quick and clean” liquidation:

Popular Wellington diner Five Boroughs has moved across town into smaller premises after the company was put into voluntary liquidation, which the owners say give it greater opportunity to chase more profitable business.

[The company] owes $32,400 to employees in holiday pay, $27,000 to unsecured trade creditors, and about $360,000 to Inland Revenue, though that number is yet to be confirmed.

One of Five Boroughs’ owners has made an open statement on Facebook challenging some of the article, but it’s hard to argue with quotes like

“We could see ourselves on this slippery slope where we were basically just becoming a hamburger restaurant, and neither Elie nor myself really wanted that. It was sensible for us to move to a smaller site, where we could really get a handle on the product and the quality … We decided we’d get a handle on everything now and do it on our own terms.”

Other reports (from people claiming to be staff) indicate that the timing was deliberate – workers were given 4, 9, 11 or 13 days’ notice that their jobs were ended – and in my experience, employers sometimes schedule redundancy announcements around or before Christmas to avoid extra holiday costs (usually because they don’t understand how holiday pay works).

The fact that Five Boroughs’ owners owed $32,000 in holiday pay tells us the staff were employed on a casual basis, instead of permanent; which is common in the hospitality industry and generally exploitative [I’ve been corrected on this point; it’s also possible staff are owed accrued leave as permanent employees]. Sure, there’s sometimes a genuine need for casual or on call work, but knowing what the basic requirements of your operation are is business competence 101 – and you can, and should, hire permanent, decent-fixed-hours staff accordingly.

This is horrific for the people who have been essentially turned into disposable assets by their employers, and it highlights the wider issue of how fucking terrible New Zealand business owners and managers are.

We’re persistently fed this myth by rightwing politicians and lobbyists: the market knows best, businesses are more efficient than the public service, the profit motive encourages good, clean, efficient, smart behaviour.

Yet again and again we see businesses which are only able to be “successful” by shafting ordinary workers. By relying on poverty wages or tax loopholes to make the books look good. By making short-term cuts and bailing before the long-term effects are realised. By literally putting themselves out of business to make a quick cut-and-run to a more central, “slicker” venue.

There are good businesses out there. There are Living Wage employers, bosses who understand the benefits of having collective agreements, companies which see the huge advantages of engaging constructively with the people who make their operation successful.

I want to see other business owners get angry about this story. Tell us that this isn’t how you run things. Show that you’re not just exploiting loopholes and grinding people’s faces into the mud for a bottom line. Because we have too many examples to the contrary, and your self-appointed spokespeople like National, ACT, the New Zealand Initiative and NBR telling the world it’s just hunky-dory.

We cannot accept a situation where ordinary people – the people who did the work every day of preparing food, serving customers, cleaning tables – are left in the lurch, and it’s hailed as savvy business practice. We cannot accept the “wisdom” of a market which relies on bullshit and crossed fingers to make all the numbers line up on a spreadsheet and call it “growth”.

Success is when you make a contribution to your community, when you nurture and protect the people around you, when you create something good for the benefit of everyone.

This isn’t success. It’s greed. And greed is poison.

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