Culture

Staff At A Melbourne Lingerie Store Are Protesting Against Sexist Work Conditions

The company's handbook directs female employees to "pout" at male customers.

A group of young workers have staged a protest today targeting the Australian lingerie chain Honey Birdette, which has been accused by current and former staff of encouraging sexual harassment.

The protest was held outside Honey Birdette’s Melbourne Central store and follows a petition started by a former employee that claimed staff were “sexually harassed and intimidated by customers – and when these women spoke up, management told them to suck it up.” The petition, which also accuses the company of enforcing a sexist dress code, has been signed by 5,000 people.

Staff have also expressed concern at the the company’s staff handbook which directs women to “pout” at male customers.

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Photo credit: Young Workers Centre

Today’s protest included testimonials from Honey Birdette staff, documenting their negative experiences in the workplace. “We were told we were there as ‘sex kittens’,” one testimonial read. “They make you go up to women and couples and sell them sex toys and say vulgar things to them even if [the customers] say no,” read another.

One former staff member said that the company forced staff to wear high heels and stockings, which they had to purchase from the store.

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Photo credit: Young Workers Centre

Material distributed at the protest said that workers at Honey Birdette were “bullied and intimidated by management for not having perfectly applied lipstick or wanting to wear flat shoes instead of high heels – even for safety reasons.” They also “face sexual harassment and intimidation from customers, and are pressured by management to work countless hours of unpaid overtime to make sales.”

Employees also raised concerns around the company’s official staff handbook called “The Little Black Book”. The handbook, seen by Junkee, describes how staff are expected to dress and interact with customers.

The handbook describes retail staff as “showgirls”. Dress guidelines include requirements that staff wear red lipstick and high heels to “complete the showgirl experience”. Nails must either be red, black or nude and staff are reminded that “ladies talk with our hands”.

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An excerpt from the company’s “Little Black Book”

According to the handbook, being a “Honey” (staff member) is more than a job, it’s a “lifestyle”. Staff are also encouraged to use phrases like “Kinky cats”, “Sadistic sweethearts”, “Spank me if I’m wrong” and “Come hither”.

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A specific section on male customers directs staff to greet them with a “killer pout”.

The issue of sexual harassment in retail workplaces isn’t unique to one specific company. An investigate feature published by Fairfax last week highlighted how common it is across the industry.

The article pointed out that there have been no public campaigns targeting this kind of behaviour despite the fact the law was changed five years ago to explicitly prohibit customers sexually harassing employees.

Today’s protest was supported by the Young Workers Centre. Keelia Fitzpatrick, the centre’s coordinator, said “Honey Birdette claims to be about ’empowering women’ – but the only people Honey Birdette are empowering are customers who want to sexually harass women.

“We’ve had many women contact us to speak out about these awful workplace practices, but what’s really alarming is how many of these women are speaking to us anonymously. There’s a real culture of fear among the workers at Honey Birdette. It’s time for Honey Birdette to practice what they preach and empower staff to stand up for safety.”

Junkee has contacted Honey Birdette for comment.