My mate got me this job in an Indian restaurant a couple months ago. I’d been struggling to find work so it was a welcome help. It’s not easy being a single mum, especially when the dole won’t recognise you as one. (More on this later.)
So I trotted off to my new job and to be honest I absolutely loved it. All the guys I worked with were lovely, friendly people who had a wealth of information to share on their culture and what it’s like to be Bangladeshi on Merseyside. I’d never really known much about it, I found it fascinating and I was constantly asking questions. We would work all evening listening to music, chatting and joking, and then I’d be sent home with a delicious dinner to boot. Couldn’t have asked more than that.
One day I got a call from my boss who said if I didn’t mind I’d been passed on to his uncle’s takeaway where they were desperate for staff. I didn’t mind at all, and off I went.
I arrived at this place a little early expecting more of the same, but it was different. It was smaller, quieter, grubbier and my sense of humour didn’t seem to translate so well as it had before. I decided to give it some time anyway.
The boss took me round showing me where everything was and explaining which bits were my job. I explained to him that I’d done this all before but he insisted on showing me all over again – understandable really, most employers like things done a certain way. But there was something about this guy that made me uncomfortable from the off. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it soon became apparent that what was going on here was not retraining. He was patronising me. He was treating me like I was stupid.
I let it slide anyway and left happy, again with a full belly, when I went home that evening. Almost immediately I received a text from the boss.
I thought nothing of it really, the guy was friendly, chatty. I replied with what I deemed appropriate and then I ignored anything that wasn’t work related. He spent a lot of time over the next couple of shifts telling me about his affluence, his cars, how he liked to go out drinking, how he had once been beaten up by a gang of lads for chatting up a girl. All pretty innocuous stuff, but it was building a picture I didn’t like, and alarm bells were ringing long before anything actually happened.
One of the things I noticed was that this guy seemed unable to take no for an answer. He would offer a cup of tea, or a biscuit, I would refuse three or four times and yet it would appear before me. He would check back two or three times to see if I’d drank it. Again, is this just generosity or good manners? Or is it a man that cannot take simple cues from a woman and accept the smallest of boundaries? I didn’t like it at all.
We were smoking by the back door during a quiet period, when he asked about the tattoos on my arms. I explained to him what they were – a skull, a frog, a symbol of love and solidarity. He said he would love tattoos but he wasn’t allowed to get them. As always what began as a friendly chat soon made me uncomfortable when he took a seemingly innocent step towards me and told me that there were lots of things he shouldn’t do, but that he kept certain aspects of his lifestyle to himself. I assumed he meant the smoking, and said so. He snorted and repeated himself. That shift took way too long to end and I was grateful when somebody else offered to give me a lift home.
I was off sick with a bad virus the next couple of weeks, and although I’d been slightly uncomfortable to begin with this is where he really ramped up the game. He was already using language that I found completely inappropriate for an employer, much less one who I had only met a couple of times up to this point.
He was now texting me almost every day. I never replied, if I did it related solely to work and I made sure to mention my boyfriend as often as seemed appropriate. I was sending clear signals. He was not picking them up, or he was ignoring them. It was the unwanted cup of tea times a thousand.
By this point I was dreading going to work, but I desperately needed the money. I had already contacted the guy who sent me there in the first place and told him I was uncomfortable. He said he would try to find me something else.
When I agreed to come to work that evening he offered to pick me up from the station, where I would be arriving about four hours before work started. How weird. I refused, and he later asked me why I hadn’t let him. I told him I didn’t need his help outside of work but I appreciated the offer. He made me a brew I didn’t want. I poured it down the sink. I was getting pretty tired of this shit but I still wasn’t sure. Was I just being a bitch? Was he just being nice, and was I just misunderstanding? If there was a word for what was going on I didn’t know it.
So, I arrived at work. I was immediately very uncomfortable, it was becoming impossible and I dreaded going. Once there I spent all evening staring at my shoes and trying to avoid conversation. Then he starts texting me every time he goes out on a delivery.
The chef was cool, I was 100% sure he’d said nothing of the sort, but I couldn’t deny my discomfort was palpable in the restaurant. I ignored most of the shit he sent me. I didn’t want any part of this and I convinced myself if I just kept ignoring it and got on with my job it would stop. It didn’t stop.
He said to me later that evening that, as usual, we were all going to eat together after work and they were going to cook lamb. By this late point in the evening I had decided that perhaps I was being silly and I should make more of an effort to be friendly. I said “cool, looking forward to it.”
Noticing the change in my attitude he took advantage and began telling me about his wife. How they were unhappy, how she had her own life that she got on with that he didn’t interfere with. He told me intimate things that I did not want to know, did not respond to, and found wholly inappropriate for anyone to discuss with a mere aquaintance nevermind someone who has worked for them for a whole five minutes. He continued despite my obvious discomfort. I was grateful when another delivery order arrived.
Despite the very light but uncomfortable touching of my knees or shoulders in passing, despite the comments that I was a “good looking woman and should have no problem with men,” despite even the insistence that when a group of men congregated in the kitchen I should leave and entertain myself elsewhere, I had convinced myself that surely this must all be innocent and I was just overreacting, being mean, surly and cold. Whenever the discomfort got so much it would be noted by others, I would take a mental note and attempt to relax and engage again, but each time I found myself back at the start. Nervous, embarrassed and very uncomfortable.
It came to a head eventually when I saw the chef preparing the lamb as the boss had said for dinner just before closing time. The chef showed the pot to me and I smiled, approvingly. He put it on the back of the stove and began making something else. The hair prickled on my neck. Something was off.
As the boss counted the till, he handed the guys their wages. Except mine. Which he put into his pocket. By this time I knew something was up. As the rest of the staff left one by one, the chef carrying the second meal he’d made all packaged up, the boss said to me “We’re going to eat now, they are on a diet.”
No no no no no no.
For the first time I blurted it out. “No! I’m not staying to eat with just you, I’m sorry but no way.”
He told me he needed help counting the till. My wages were in his pocket. He said he would give me a lift home, my wages were in his pocket. He said it would all be fine, and my wages were still in his pocket. I desperately needed the money, that was the only reason I’d stayed working in the godforsaken place.
By some sort of miracle the till was up. There was £10 too much in the drawer. We counted it again and again. I was clock watching, counting the seconds which seemed to get longer and longer. He emptied his pockets and seeing my chance I grabbed my wages.
Relief washed over me. I felt like I had some of the power back. The till was balanced and he began to get out plates and cutlery for the food. I told him again, no. I don’t want to stay to eat. I want to go home. He carried on, laughing off my refusal.
Something snapped then, and I exploded through the kitchen and out of the front door. I ran all the way home, convinced he was following me and would pull me over. I phoned my boyfriend on the way and explained everything. I still felt like I’d overreacted but the weight of the discomfort told me otherwise. I had been scared in that kitchen, alone with him. Terrified. He had abused his position.
He texted me again.
I decided that desperate for a job or not this had to stop here and now, and I was never going to go back there. So I replied.
If I had received an apology, shock, embarrassment anything of the sort I might have felt silly. But what I got was “I don’t think so.”
You don’t think so? I’m not asking your opinion I’m fucking telling you how it is. Even after all this he didn’t or wouldn’t understand. It enfuriated me. It made me so angry that the onus was put on me for running off rather than him for making me feel as though I had to.
What angered me most was this man had given me a job knowing that what I desperately needed was the money and work to look after myself and my son. He exploited that situation until I was forced back out of work. He refused to take responsibility for his actions.
But above all else, I feel weak. And that is what enfuriated me most. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do, or what I was supposed to have done differently to stop that asshole before it got to that. By now he will have moved on to letching over the next girl sent to him, not skipping a beat. I’m made to feel like I was the one being weird, and he gets to continue with his business and his flash car that impresses nobody and his bad teeth.
I’m sick of hearing that sexism doesn’t exist anymore from so many of the women and men around me, that it’s just up to us to ‘stand up for ourselves’ now. It is not up to me to somehow changed the attitudes and actions of men who have a life of entitlement, a whole structure of privilege, and centuries of dominance to back themselves up. That is not my responsibility.
To people like that boss, my worth as an employee was determined by my willingness to flirt with him, pay him special attention, to let him objectify me. As soon as I refused he was happy to let me go, and made out I was being weird. I feel sick and angry, I shake with indignation at the thought of other women in his life and what they have to put up with; because you can be sure where there’s any kind of power over women to be had, men like this abuse it.
Yeah what happened to me had a lot to do with class as well, being an employee, but it had a lot to do with being a woman too. And now this woman is back on the dole, feeling as though standing up for yourself gets you nowhere.
But despite the end result, standing your ground is always the right thing to do and I hope, at least, that other women reading this will too. Only when strong women become the rule and not the exception will dickheads like this become accountable.
I wish I had more power. I wish my argument carried more weight. I wish I knew what else I could do