New Zealand soap company Honeybunch ordered to pay more than $20,000 after boss jokes about inserting poison into product

Lisa Jolly.
Photo credit: Getty Images

A New Zealand soap company has been ordered to pay more than $20,000 after its owner joked about putting poison into ingredients.

Honeybunch employed Barlee van Niekerk until April last year until she was constructively dismissed, which the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) has ruled unjustifiable.

The ERA found that on March 23 last year, the day of New Zealand's first COVID-19 lockdown, Honeybunch owner Lisa Jolly decided staff would work from home.

In making that decision, Jolly started a Facebook group chat to communicate with her workers during the lockdown.

The ERA decision said Jolly messaged van Niekerk about working from home - and asked her to collect materials and ingredients. 

"On Wednesday, March 25 2020 Ms Jolly messaged the group of a requirement for them to post their 'video daily here using the hashtags and sharing as per the company both of Facebook and Instagram… All videos to be up by 7pm… make it fun and make it viral.'"

The next day, van Niekerk in the group chat expressed reservations about the video plan - saying it wasn't her thing.

"Ms Jolly replied, 'Not happy,' noting Ms van Niekerk posted things and did fitness and played squash so questioned why joining together to do something for the business was not her thing," ERA member Nicola Craig said in her decision.

Jolly acknowledged she couldn't force van Niekerk to participate but she wasn't "impressed at all".

"At the end of the first week, Ms van Niekerk ran out of ingredients to produce the bath product she had been making. On Tuesday, March 31 Ms Jolly messaged Ms van Niekerk and asked her how things were going. 

"Ms van Niekerk replied that she had nothing to do because she had run out of supplies. Ms Jolly responded: 'OK so what are you doing this week? Did you ask for another job?'

"She [van Niekerk] also commented that she had mentioned last week that she had run out of one product and was down to a small amount of salt. Ms Jolly replied that she would have jobs for Ms van Niekerk.

"Ms van Niekerk replied: 'Sweet as... I only have lav and rose frag, a small amount of coconut oil and blue & red dye, that's it.' Ms Jolly replied: 'It's not sweet as… Just can't believe that you are at home for two days with no work being done whilst I'm working crazy hard to support everyone.'"

The ERA said later that day Jolly was messaging the group chat, arranging for more products to be dropped to van Niekerk.

"Ms Jolly messaged something which she later removed," the decision said. "Ms Jolly said that it could not be proved what she had written and when pressed, she said she could not recall. However, Ms van Niekerk saw it and I accept her evidence that it referred to something along the lines of lacing of cyanide."

Jolly also joked about lacing the products with cocaine, indicating it "might hurry the videos up".

On April 2, a new employment agreement was sent to van Niekerk - which was changed to a working "as required" contract rather than her previous 20 hours per week.

The agreement also said she had to partake in social media posts.

"Later that day Ms van Niekerk responded, that a clause requiring social media involvement seemed to have little to do with the rest of her job description. She sought clarity as to what the clause was and its validity against her current job role.

"Ms van Niekerk emailed Ms Jolly noting several changes from the previous employment agreement which had not been discussed and which she would like to talk about.

"She suggested an online meeting as the country was still in lockdown. Later that day Ms Jolly replied, indicating that the changes to the agreement were within her 'rights and necessary to ensure the survival of the business.'"

Feeling she had no choice, van Niekerk resigned from the job. The ERA said despite financial pressures caused by the COVID-19 lockdown, this didn't justify Honeybunch acting as it did.

"Here, a new employment agreement was sent without very significant changes being highlighted or explained.

"Ms van Niekerk's attempt to discuss the changes was met with an assertion that the employer could make the changes (without agreement) and a prompt to leave if she did not like it.

"Honeybunch failed to act as a fair and reasonable employer could have done."

Van Niekerk was repaid $2268 in lost wages. Honeybunch also had to pay van Niekerk $18,000 as compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.