Lyttelton Port Company workers say 'rife' bullying 'tip of the iceberg' after staffer's sudden death

Current and former employees have spoken out about LPC's practices.
Current and former employees have spoken out about LPC's practices. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Warning: This story contains discussion of suicide.

Accusations that workplace bullying contributed to a Lyttelton Port Company (LPC) employee taking her own life have raised more concerns around culture issues within Canterbury's export and import gateway, and the safety of the business' staff. 

Since Newshub published a story about claims made by family and former colleagues of Katrina Hey, regarding the treatment she spoke of experiencing during her seven years as a container controller at the City Depot worksite, current and former employees have spoken out about LPC's standards - saying they urgently need to change. 

One worker says bullying is just the "tip of the iceberg" staffers face, with issues including a lack of support, stressful environments and living in fear of being pushed out. 

Before her death on Christmas Day last year, Katrina labelled a folder 'abuse' in black marker and kept inside emails and records containing handwritten notes, after an internal investigation into her formal bullying complaint was dismissed in 2013. 

Her family feels the documents may hold clues as to why the Christchurch mother was worn down to a point where she couldn't keep going. They are now fighting for change to ensure others do not go through the same experience, while raising awareness about the hardships they say the 49-year-old faced during her time with LPC.

But as they wait to learn if an independent investigation will be launched into workplace bullying, LPC staffers have come forward to express their own concerns about what really goes on inside New Zealand's third-largest container port.

Fearful of repercussions, Newshub has agreed to protect the identity of these people to ensure they do not face consequences. 

'A man's world' 

A woman who has worked at LPC for more than 12 years in different roles told Newshub that she had to put up with male colleagues regularly picking on her when she started out as a cargo handler.

She says many of the workers have family in the industry, often following in the footsteps of their fathers or grandfathers, which creates a difficult atmosphere to fit into.

"If you weren't family, you shouldn't have been on the wharf in the first place. I got bullied a lot because I wasn't family and female. It was really hard for a woman to step into that role," she told Newshub. 

The woman says at the beginning it was "pretty stressful" but didn't believe there was anything available to help her situation.

"A lot of the guys just said 'harden up, you're in a man's world' or they would say 'I thought women could do anything'. Luckily, because of my background, I was able to handle it.

"Whether it's men picking on women, or women picking on men, I don't believe in bullying."

Over the last four years, a union activist says they have personally sat in on more than 10 cases in which employees have tried to seek help for mistreatment.
Over the last four years, a union activist says they have personally sat in on more than 10 cases in which employees have tried to seek help for mistreatment. Photo credit: Getty Images.

She says she took a lot of the name-calling on the shoulder, whether it was a racial slur like "f***ing Māori" or misogyny like "get back in the kitchen".

Commonly she found men who had been there 20 or 30 years were territorial over "their domain" and took time to understand a woman's place.

More recently she has been made to feel like a part of the family but continues to witness "a lot of bullying" from within her team directed at others and other areas of the business.

In a more senior role at LPC, she saw a chain of pressure being passed from the top management down a chain, from one person to the next.

The woman believes the focus of LPC is on profit and performance, which stems from "higher up", but believes it can swing both ways over pay rise disputes and "wanting to go home safe at the end of the night".

A person in a union activist role said they once stood by a young woman who was copping ongoing slack from the men and found it too hard to handle.

"She had to take time off because she was getting bullied a lot."

Over the last four years, they have personally sat in on more than 10 cases in which employees have tried to seek help for mistreatment.

"That's the company picking on people if they're not pulling their weight or the likes of the company bullying the people to get the best performance." 

'It's like I am nothing' 

An employee on the port who has been with the company almost two years told Newshub the culture at LPC is "every man for himself", and there is no feeling of being managed.

They say they are desperately trying to have a bullying complaint handled after being "belittled" in front of customers.

"I will not argue, because personally I do not believe that staff should do that, it doesn't give a good feel for LPC, so I just shut my mouth but then I can't address it later."

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They say it's got to the stage where they're trying to get it addressed at management level but is finding it hard to be heard.

They feel they can't go to anyone directly and say "I have a problem".

"Our team leaders don't appear to have any responsibility or accountability, I think they've given up on trying.

"It's like I am nothing. I just get hurt. I get hurt, and then I lose confidence and then go back in, and then it will happen again and I'll lose confidence and then I'll go back in again. It's a cycle and I just want it stopped.

"I feel betrayed. When you work for somebody, you put everything in, you try hard, you try to do all the right things, and it's just so long, and nobody's taken me seriously."

'No thanks' 

In the following months after Katrina's death, one of her former colleagues contacted her daughter Kassandra Hey about working at LPC at the same time.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, worked at LPC for three months in 2019 before leaving due to stress.

"It's the same boss that bullied your mum. Another man I started with has also left. He lasted seven months," she told Kassandra.

"I liked your mum, she was great at her job but unappreciated. I hope she has found peace now.

"Looking back, Katrina did more work than any of us," the woman told Kassandra. "She got no thanks for it. They did it to her."

Another woman who contacted Katrina's daughter said her husband was pushed out of LPC and had no choice but to leave when his health started suffering.

"He was either going to have a heart attack or breakdown so he resigned," she wrote.

The woman said with the stress of having to pay their mortgage, it has resulted in significantly difficult times.

"But he couldn't stay there," she told Kassandra. "So I can see exactly why that poor lady took her own life. Until you go through it, nobody knows what it's like." 

'It's old school' 

A cargo handler told Newshub that LPC nepotism is "alive and well" where those with management positions are seen to be favouring relatives or friends.

He says the only reason anyone on the container terminal works there is because they get paid well with the support of the company's two unions, RMTU and MUNZ, but understands the workers who don't have to be with a union are bullied into not joining and are paid poorly.

He said if the company doesn't like you, for whatever reason, they will "make your life a misery".

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"Everyone knows who was bullying Katrina, but they don't do anything about it. It's like she's untouchable. I have no idea why."

The employee went through a grievance of his own with LPC and felt unsupported because "they want everything their way".

He attempted raising an issue, and got a "stock standard" response to workplace bullying - essentially, "they deny all allegations without due process".

"Bullying is rife there, absolutely rife. It is a man's world. If my daughter ever said 'Dad, I want to do what you do', I'd be like 'f*** no, no way'."

He said getting into "this millennia" would be a good start for change.

Paid for silence 

In the case of some Lyttelton Port workers who raise grievances, it is difficult to speak out because they have accepted a settlement and signed a gag clause.

A current employee said if you're seen as "a bit of a shit-stirrer", LPC doesn't mind doing "whatever is needed to push you out".

"I think they got a bit tired of losing at the ERA (Employment Relations Authority), so they just push you out. And they have to sign a document so no one can talk about it. That sort of seems to be the way they are dealing with everything at the moment, they are just paying people out that they don't want to come back."

The worker listed three names of colleagues who he knows were handed money and had their employment terminated under a contract with specific conditions and harsh penalties for breaking its clauses.

Newshub was told about one Lyttelton Port worker of 30 years who was pushed out as he reached retirement age, but is contractually restricted from speaking for himself after accepting a settlement.

Speaking on behalf of the man, a relative said in a message to Kassandra: "Mental abuse is far worse than physical abuse." 

'She can't actually speak for herself now'

In a document sent to LPC Human Resources from the RMTU Lyttelton branch secretary in 2013, Katrina Hey outlined feeling threatened, disliked and afraid to go into work in her complaint. 

"I never seem to do things right, I'm always in the wrong," she wrote. "I feel sick at the thought of going into work and not knowing if I am going to be accused of doing something wrong. 

"I like my job and I want to come to work and feel safe and do my job well. I don't want to be bullied or feel too scared to ask a question to clarify what needs to be done regarding the day's work." 

Maryline Suchley from anti-bullying organisation Culture Safe told Newshub depression and anxiety are the two most common impacts of workplace bullying. She says this impacts an employee's ability to perform to their full potential because all they're thinking about is how they are being treated.

Suchley believes there is enough evidence to suggest Katrina was a victim of workplace bullying.

"Unfortunately she didn't get the opportunity to take her case forward, she actually raised complaints about bullying and did it formally, but of course it wasn't taken seriously, and it still carried on. Had she been able to take her case to ERA, she would have stood a good chance of winning." 

Katrina Hey took her own life on Christmas Day last year after seven years at LPC.
Katrina Hey took her own life on Christmas Day last year after seven years at LPC. Photo credit: Getty Images.

It is understood that Katrina dealt with personal issues throughout her seven-year employment but her family believe her work added extensive stress to her life before her suicide. 

A close relative to Katrina told Newshub: "She went out of the way for work, she was a bloody good worker and they just treated her like shit. It wasn't the only reason she did it but it contributed a hell of a lot to it." 

From the records that were kept, Suchley believes Katrina was in a "horrendous" mental state and says LPC has failed in its duty to keep her safe.

"They should have taken more consideration for her health and safety but they didn't. They do have a responsibility and she can't actually speak for herself now."

LPC CEO Roger Gray told Newshub on Friday a representative for Katrina's family has approached the company about a process of mediation to go through their concerns.

"We intend to take up this offer, and therefore at this time in order to enter that process in good faith we do not wish to add anything to what we have said previously. We continue to express our condolences for their loss."

LPC is an independent company owned 100 percent by Christchurch City Holdings Ltd (CCHL) on behalf of Christchurch City Council.

It has an independent board of directors and an independent management team and they operate their business autonomously subject to their Statement of Intent and relevant legislation, which includes the Port Companies Act.

A Christchurch City Council spokesperson told Newshub LPC previously made the CCHL/Council aware of Katrina's death under the CCHL 'no surprises' policy.

WorkSafe told Newshub it was not notified of Katrina's death. 

'Work has begun' to change culture 

Gray told Newshub since he started his role in February of this year, he has been consulting with staff and unions, as well as holding face-to-face sessions to get to know the team.

"What has become very clear to me from the feedback and questions that I have had is that there are cultural issues at LPC and we need a complete transformation," he said in a statement.

"While my first three months have been disrupted by dealing with the impact COVID-19 crisis, I have still worked to increase the level of engagement with our unions and our staff, and I have made it very clear that we will be introducing 'high performance high engagement' at LPC as soon as possible."

He says "work has begun" on developing a set of values and behaviours collaboratively with all staff at LPC which will set the way forward as to how people are expected to act and behave, and what it means to be an employee of LPC.

"I will take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment," he said.

"We have a policy and procedures, and I expect when matters are raised they are properly handled. If there is evidence of bullying brought to my attention, I will launch an independent investigation into bullying at LPC."