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'We’ve Got You By The Balls': Staff Tell Of Bullying And Breakdowns In Living ‘NovoHell’

EXCLUSIVE: After a two-month investigation, 10 daily reveals bullying allegations of visa-dependent staff who were overworked until exhaustion and mental breakdowns -- despite multiple pleas to management and HR to step in.

Novotel Manly Pacific is part of Accor, one of the largest hospitality companies in the world boasting 150 Novotel branded hotels in Australia and the Pacific.

Our investigation details allegations from chefs and housekeeping staff at the popular beachside hotel who recall and re-live their horror while working there.

Czech Republic-born Radim Radek was drawn to the hotel and surrounding lifestyle. The 47 year old worked as a casual kitchen hand until 2011, when he was encouraged to train as a chef in order for the 213 bedroom hotel to sponsor his permanent residency.

"I'm quiet person, and work hard and I love to live in Manly, so I did all my training and became chef", Radek told 10 daily.

In 2013, Radek signed a contract with Novotel Manly Pacific to become a full-time commis chef. Payslips obtained by 10 daily show that for the next two years he was paid as a casual kitchen hand despite repeated attempts to have this corrected and receive back pay.

Novotel Manly Pacific. IMAGE: Accor Hotels.

What was expected to be a reasonably straightforward process, he claims, turned into years of bullying, being overworked and taunted about not getting a visa if he didn't oblige.

It culminated in Radek having a panic attack and collapsing at the hotel, being taken to hospital and later diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD because of his workplace experience.

"I'm not a pushy person, and now I am blaming myself I didn’t speak up more, I had a lot of email communication and meetings with HR," he said. 

10 daily has seen several of Radek's emails to four different HR managers between 2013 and 2017 about the working conditions, workplace treatment and his deteriorating physical and mental health. 

At one stage he was transferred from one kitchen to another -- to work in  Zali's restaurant, named after Zali Steggall, Federal Independent member for the area and a renowned Olympic athlete in the 1990s.

Images: Supplied/zalisteggal.com.au

"But then a manager put me in the kitchen section and he said if you want your visa you have to do it by yourself and we used to have in this section two or three chefs before and I was thinking 'is he joking', but I'm the kind of person I don't like arguing," he said. 

A commis chef's role is to assist senior chefs, by cutting vegetables, rotating stock and clearing stations.

In 2015 Radek says his health started to rapidly deteriorate and he lost 10kg, but he didn't quit because his visa application was pending.

Radim Radek before the experience. He claims to have lost 15 kg during the intense periods of bullying . IMAGE: Facebook

"I was already bad, I wasn't sleeping properly and I was working like sometimes 12, 14 hours by myself as the chef, it was so stressful and busy I started feeling broken," he said. 

Sam Key, who worked in the events department at the same hotel at the time, saw Radek collapse in tears at work, and intervened.

“I would describe it was a culture of bullying, management kept getting away with treating their staff very poorly. I kept finding Radim crying in the cool room, and other chefs as well or coming to the office to get away from it."

Sam Key. Photo: Supplied

Despite not being at the receiving end of this treatment, Key felt compelled to intervene.

"I sat him down and asked what is going on. When he told me I felt I needed to do something, it was like there was an underclass or a two-class system at Novotel. The way Australians got treated and the way the migrants, and those who didn't have visas got treated," he said.

Radek is described as a "gentle, softly spoken giant" by his psychologist, who has witnessed his mental health deteriorate. The photograph on the right shows the chef in hospital after collapsing at work. IMAGE: supplied

In a 2016 email to HR obtained by 10 daily, Key raised concerns about the "toxic workplace" he'd witnessed.

Speaking about Radek 's predicament, in particular, he wrote: "He is sponsored by the hotel for his [current] visa and thus feels an allegiance to it."

Key outlined the excessive amount of unpaid overtime chefs did, how time sheets were altered by managers to meet budgets, as well as the culture of bullying by management. 10 daily has accessed time sheets signed off by managers that don't match the hours worked by chefs.

All of this behaviour is unprofessional and some of it is illegal, he wrote.

Key also told HR that he had this confirmed "by multiple people and I have seen some of it myself".

He believes management deliberately exploited vulnerable staff who were less likely, or able, to complain.

Key complained to HR in December 2016 about the treatment of migrant staff at the hotel. IMAGE: Getty Images

“There were two main kitchen hands and they were people I would definitely say were vulnerable. One had a mental disability and the other one was from Afghanistan. Both of them were very quiet non-confrontational people,” Key told 10 daily.

The way they were spoken to and treated, the hours that they had to work... There were shifts when I would leave and come back and they would still be there at the start of my next shift, he said.

As a result of Key's email, HR had a meeting with Radek and Key says changes were “superficial”. Novotel colleagues told him it went back to the way it was once he left in late 2017.

Sue Banos was General Manager of the international hospitality college in Sydney’s CBD where Radek trained. She felt compelled to get involved after he came to her detailing his work situation and deteriorating health.

“He went from a bright and bubbly person, and then seeing him like that -- he is nearly unrecognisable,” Banos said.

IMAGE: Novotel Manly Pacific

“He would show me the hours he worked because he would record the hours himself, but the system was on an electronic system that clocked him at 7.6 hours.”

In October 2015, Banos and Radek had a meeting with Novotel Manly Pacific's general manager and head of HR, where they promised to address the problems of payment, bullying and illegal rostering, as well as speed up Radek's visa application process.

“The meeting appeared to go well but I think it was a lot of lip service because I was there as the support person,” Banos said.

She said migrant worker and visa exploitation is a "dark side" of the hospitality industry,

"Absolutely too common. I saw many students come forward when I was working in the international student arena [where] businesses would promise visa sponsorship, exploit and then not follow through," she said.

Radek says little changed after the meeting.

On a medical certificate obtained by 10 daily, Radek 's general practitioner  recommended he take long-service leave to help manage his mental health. The document, dated April 2017, gives two-months notice for leave in July for Radek to spend time with family abroad. This request was denied, but granted for later that year.

In March 2018, the workplace culture and Radek 's health came to a head. He was told that due to another chef's ill-health, he was unable to have time off and needed to cover his colleague's shift.

"I was already broken and exhausted and then excited for my two days off, and I was working seven or eight days straight feeling already so flat," he said.

So Radek said he was feeling unwell, declined the extra work and said he needed time to rest.

"He [the manager] said something like, 'I thought you wanted your visa' and he left the kitchen. I just felt so used due to my restricted visa circumstances,” he said. 

Immediately afterwards, Radek started to tremble, panic and was unable to talk when colleagues asked him what was wrong.

"I started to get very confused, I couldn't concentrate on the order dockets there, I had blurred vision and I started shaking ... and then I just slid down the wall and then I remember I was lying on the sofa shaking and they called the ambulance," he said. 

Radek was taken to Manly Hospital and assessed. His discharge letter stated that "[Radek] presented with palpitations. Very difficult work situation which is ongoing. Difficulty with insomnia."

A copy of Radek's discharge letter from Manly Hospital after his collapse at work. IMAGE: supplied.

Arvin Siasar is a Filipino-born chef who was in hospital and unable to come into work the weekend Radek was asked to work.

“I was in hospital with bronchitis for two weeks and Radim was asked to cover my shifts, and told he has to keep working. I think my sickness was also because of stress and exhaustion from work,” Siasar said.

He felt guilty when he learnt that Radek had a breakdown at work.

"With Radim they treated him like shit because he needed the visa and they could control him,” Siasar told 10 daily.

Siasar was able to get a family-sponsored visa and left Novotel in late 2018.

“We always call it Novohell. I would often be left to work by myself as a chef in the kitchen on weekends. Always so stressed and just pushed and pushed until I couldn't take it anymore.”

If I didn't leave Novotel I probably would have had a mental breakdown too.

Radek's psychologist Dr Gill Walker was so "appalled" by the treatment of her patient, she felt compelled to speak publicly about it. In 2018, Walker diagnosed Radek with anxiety and major depressive disorder.

“He has repeated panic attacks and the context of the flashbacks and the nightmares are consistently Novotel --  the place and the people who treated him this way," she told 10 daily.

After treating Radek for around six months -- who she describes as a "softly-spoken gentle giant", she also diagnosed him with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“The view is quite old-fashion to suggest that PTSD only happens at war and things like that. The literature in the past 15 years on severe bullying as a trauma amounting to PTSD is quite strong,” she said.

When asked why she felt compelled to speak to the media about a client's mental health, she said, “This kind of injustice shouldn’t be allowed in our world let alone in this country."

Another chef who was granted a permanent residency visa after working at the same hotel -- who doesn't wish to be named --  said she would never go back.

“If someone said to me here’s a million dollars and go back and work at Novotel I would say ‘no way in hell that place is Novohell'.”

The overseas-born, senior chef said the working hours and "utterly disgraceful" culture saw her lose an unhealthy amount of weight and she became "a shadow of myself".

 "By then I was a size four and weighed 43 kg,” she said. 

“I didn't realise how hard it was and how much it affected me until I walked past Novotel not long ago, and it actually sent shivers down my spine,” she said. 

She recalls a manager telling her "we’ve got you by the balls", referring to migrant staff who were awaiting Novotel-sponsored visas. 

The former chef said she routinely worked 17-hour shifts, but was only paid for eight.

"They know we don’t have anywhere to go, without a visa we don’t have options unless we want to leave to the country.”

On Another Level: Housekeeping Horror 

The abuse of migrant staff wasn't contained to the kitchens at Novotel Manly. 10 daily has learnt that housekeeping staff were also bullied and forced to routinely work unpaid overtime.

“I have friends in housekeeping and when I have a break we usually talk. And I see these friends punch their work card and log out and then go back upstairs to keep working,” Siasar said.

IMAGE: Getty Images

“I said 'why are you doing this'? This is bad for you and it's illegal',” he said.

Siasar believes Novotel only hired non-English speaking or migrant women for housekeeping roles.

“Most of them cannot speak English and this friend, she is Asian, and she said she can’t say anything. You know the Asian culture, our culture is not to talk much and complain,” he said.

An Asian former housekeeper, who does not wish to be named, corroborates this.

“No Australian housekeepers, we just from Nepal, India and Philippines,” she told 10 daily.

The woman, in her early 20s, says she left in late 2018  because she was overworked and never allowed to complain.

The popular 4-star hotel has more than 200 guest rooms.

“My supervisor, they say if you log out and have not finished you have to go back and work but we are not going to pay you.”

But she claims the workload assigned to an eight-hour shift "never ever possible to finish".

Novotel distributes feedback survey to its staff twice a year to ascertain employee satisfaction.

“The supervisor and manager, they tell us you have to make sure you write it is good OK? You have to say 'good'. You have to tick it’s good and they watch you," she said. 

United Workers Union director of property services Lyndal Ryan told 10 daily that "cleaners being forced to work unpaid hours is wage theft".

IMAGE: Novotel Manly Pacific

Ryan said worker exploitation has become an established business model for many employers.

"They are systematically exploiting weak laws, lack of enforcement, inadequate scrutiny and ineffective deterrence measures," Ryan said.

"Migrant workers face significantly higher vulnerabilities to exploitation at work, and are frequently subjected to wage theft, intimidation, threats of deportation and pressure to do unreasonable work."

After Radek's collapse at work, he was assessed by numerous mental health professionals and deemed unable to return to work.

In late July this year, while on workers compensation leave, Novotel terminated Radek's employment and withdrew their permanent residency sponsorship for his visa.

I would love to transform my bad experience into new energy to help others who are or can be in similar situation at work like me and stop companies to use and treat people, especially [from] overseas, like slaves, he said.

He is currently on a bridging visa appealing the decision, hoping he won't get deported.

10 daily took the allegations of bullying, illegal rostering and migrant exploitation directly to Novotel Manly Pacific and parent company Accor.

"We are treating these allegations with the utmost seriousness," an Accor spokesperson told 10 daily.

"To that end, we have appointed an independent external investigator to carry out a full inquiry so that we can establish the facts.

"We have processes and procedures in place to ensure the ethical treatment and fair remuneration of our staff.

"We also have in place strict anti-bullying and anti-discrimination measures."

Contact the author  alattouf@networkten.com.au