When Claudia landed a gig with lingerie and adult accessory company Honey Birdette, she believed she had found her dream job.
The company that was founded over a couple of glasses of champagne between two friends in 2006 said it was on a mission to “empower women and entertain”.
“I really bought into the entire idea of that this is about empowerment,” Claudia said.
“We’re selling these products in shopping centres so that you don’t have to go into seedy sex shops in a strip mall somewhere that you’ve never been before.”
“It was a case of – let’s take away the stigma and make it accessible to every woman,” she said.
Claudia was all in. She benched her para-medicine studies to work for the company and took pride in helping women explore their sexuality and sensuality in a safe environment.
“I really love talking to customers. In a way you become almost like a counsellor,” she said.
“You would get women who are in their 50s and 60s come to the store and say – I’m just having an affair with my lover this weekend, my husband doesn’t know, what would you recommend I use?”
“You would have younger women confiding in you about their bodies, and what they’re experiencing, asking you for advice and then coming back to thank you.”
“I realised, hey I’m really good at this.”
But slowly it dawned on Claudia that Honey Birdette weren’t living the values of empowerment when it came to the treatment of their staff.
After four years with Honey Birdette, she became so disillusioned with the company’s behaviour that she decided to speak out.
“Instead of being empowered, I was disrespected, bullied and sexually harassed at work,” Claudia said.
Claudia decided to act and through the auspices of the Young Workers Centre at the Victorian Trades Hall, she started a petition demanding that Honey Birdette’s new Directors, Julie Hastings and Christopher Riley, take sexual harassment as a serious health and safety issue.
Honey Birdette was extremely prescriptive regarding what their staff wore on the shop floor.
The company is all about selling “the fantasy”, meaning workers like Claudia were required to play their role, dressing to sell the company’s idea of sex and sensuality – less empower more sales power.
“You had to wear the uniform. They had very detailed instructions about what you could wear, right down to the fabrics,” Claudia said.
“They were encouraging you – almost requiring you – to wear three articles of Honey Birdette clothing.”
‘It’s not really clothing because it’s lingerie. You would see a lot of workers wearing sheer lingerie and just a top over it. Or incorporating a harness for a strap on sex toy and using that as a belt.”
“And then there was the insistence that the staff wear high heels. You were expected to wear them pretty much all day. That’s not in line with health and safety regulations. They cause back problems and bunions on your feet. They really take a toll on you.”
I remember one regional manager came in and asked me why I wasn’t wearing heels. I told her that they were giving me back pain, and she literally took off one of her high heeled shoes, pointed her feet at me and said – yeah, what’s your point?
Former Honey Birdette employee
“Customers would come and ask about your uniform and say, do you have to dress like that? It sort of chipped away at me and I realised that this wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t what I wanted,” Claudia said.
Claudia believed Honey Birdette needed to be held to the standards they themselves have sold to the public.
“They say they are still empowering women by providing a safe place to shop for their products. They’re less about empowering women, more about empowering women to buy their products.”
“Honey Birdette’s training includes telling us to ‘practise one-liners to get customers excited’ and to ‘build a custom fantasy’ but they gave us insufficient training in dealing with customers who frequently harass or intimidate us,” she said.
The company was subject to a 2015 WorkSafe investigation and ruling that exposed sexual harassment and bullying in its stores.
Seven years on, it seems the situation hasn’t improved, and Claudia was determined to see change.
“The organisation has failed in its duty under the Equal Opportunity Act to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace,” Claudia said.
“I’m calling on Honey Birdette’s new Directors, Julie Hastings and Christopher Riley, to step up and ensure that Honey Birdette meets its obligations under the Equal Opportunity Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”
“It’s important that they do that, because we want to hold every other workplace that this is happening in accountable for their sexual harassment issues and make it more tangible for the employer, make them accountable for what happens in their workplaces.”