It sounds like the plot of a bad movie. Retail assistants rat on cheapskate boss. Boss hires local gang members to pay them a visit and “suggest” they should withdraw their case. Coming soon to a cinema near you!
Except this actually happened. In real life. In 21st Century New Zealand.
Ms N and Ms K were employed at retail clothing stores. A Labour Inspector discovered that they and two other colleagues had all been underpaid for wages and holiday pay by their employers (who were companies owned and controlled by the same three people). A case brought by the Labour Inspector found in favour of the employees, and the employers were found liable for nearly $70,000 in unpaid wages and holidays.
Shortly before that hearing, however, allegations were made by Ms N and Ms K that they had been threatened and warned against giving evidence at the investigatory meeting. As it happens, they did both give evidence in the hearing, but the Employment Relations Authority took the allegations extremely seriously.
Following the determination of the case, the ERA commenced its own separate proceedings to investigate whether the employers should face a penalty for obstructing or delaying the ERA’s investigation. The police had been informed of the allegations but had closed their file at that stage. However this did not have any impact on the ERA’s considerations.
Intimidation by gang members
According to Ms N and Ms K, the threats came in the form of contact from gang members. Ms N had a visitor to her house, who told her she shouldn’t be making trouble with her old employer, and further that his gang had been paid money to threaten her. No names were mentioned, but the man clearly described the respondent employer, and had details of the case which other people were unlikely to have known. The man threatened her and her family, and had photos of her family with him.
Ms K received the threats over the phone from someone claiming to be in the same gang. The man used profane language and had details about where her car was parked and where she lived.
Keeping the witnesses safe
The two women were given advice by Police and were assisted by the Labour Inspector, who took steps to ensure the witnesses were all safe including visiting the families, staying with them, putting one family up in a motel and arranging safe transport to the investigatory meeting.
Both women were able to attend the meeting safely and give evidence. However, the fact that there was potential for them to be deterred from doing so was enough for a finding that the hearing was obstructed.
Considering the evidence, including the specific details which the gang members knew about the case and the descriptions they gave of who had asked them to do it, the ERA decided that the former employers were responsible.
Employers order to pay witnesses
The ERA took this matter very seriously and decided to impose penalties. To reflect the ERA’s serious disapproval of what happened, each of the three employers was ordered to pay $10,000 to both the women who were affected. This penalty was imposed as a punishment and also as a deterrent to anyone else from engaging in witness intimidation.
That witness intimidation is going to get you nowhere should be painfully obvious to anyone. I get that the stakes were high but come on! These employers were probably lucky to escape criminal charges. If you face legal proceedings and are worried about the outcome, get good legal advice. It’s as simple as that. Do not make yourself the star of a lousy B-list movie.