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Auckland shop to pay nearly $15,000 after unjustifiably firing worker for alleged hand cream theft

An Auckland souvenir shop has been ordered to pay nearly $15,000 to a former worker for firing her after she allegedly stole hand cream. 

Kiwi Plaza, Auckland CBD. Source: 1 NEWS

In a recently-released decision, the Employment Relations Authority determined Wei Xia Li, who worked for Kiwi Plaza and was fired in 2017, was unjustifiably dismissed. The company was ordered to pay her $14,700.

According to the decision, authority member Nicola Craig wrote Li hadn’t been subject to any disciplinary action until her dismissal in November 2017 for the alleged theft of a tube of hand cream. Li worked two stints at the health and beauty product store: from 2002, and then from 2014.

Li was working at the Auckland CBD branch of Kiwi Plaza at the time of her dismissal.

“She [Li] took a tube of hand cream from under the counter in the centre of the shop. She went through to the kitchen or tea area at the back of the shop. She put the tube in her lunch box which was sitting on a bench,” Craig wrote. 

Li was spotted by a co-worker, who then reported her actions to the duty manager. Both then spotted a bottle of Alpine Silk Manuka Honey hand cream in Li’s lunchbox. Li said the cream was given to her by a previous store manager. 

Later, Li threw the tube in the bin, saying it was expired. 

Craig said Li strongly denied the alleged theft. 

Paul Liu, the owner of Kiwi Plaza, was told of the incident. 

The decision said Li then told Liu she didn’t steal the hand cream and thought it was expired. 

Li didn’t tell Liu about the previous manager who she said gave her the cream. Craig said this was likely because Li was “overwhelmed by the suddenness and swiftness of the process”.

“Ms Li’s sense was that a statement was being put to her that she had stolen the hand cream, rather than that she was being asked a question about it,” Craig said.

Liu then found a tube in the rubbish bin, which Li then said was the tube she had thrown away. 

“Mr Liu went to wash the tube and said it had not expired yet. Mr Liu lifted the lid. He says the protective foil was still partially attached to the nozzle of the tube. 

“He believed it was a new tube.”

Liu then fired Li for theft. Craig said the process would have taken half an hour at most, and determined it “was not a fair and proper one”.

Craig said Li “had no advance notice of what Kiwi Plaza’s concerns were. She came into the shop with no awareness of possible disciplinary action”.

“As a result, she had no warning of a possible dismissal and no opportunity to seek support or representation.” 

Li was claiming costs for the four and a half months after her dismissal when she was without work. She said she didn’t want to find similar work “because she felt word would spread in the industry about her stealing a product”. 

“Ms Li describes her behaviour to her family as deteriorating. For a week she did not eat. Her son ended up taking her to the doctor. Ms Li was unable to sleep,” Craig said. 

Craig said she wasn’t satisfied Li’s actions were “so egregious that she should be disentitled from any compensation”.

But, she determined her actions were “blameworthy” and ordered Kiwi Plaza to pay her $5700 for lost wages and an additional $9000 for the unjustified dismissal - below the maximum entitlement of $15,000. 

Craig noted it wasn’t the authority’s responsibility to determine whether a criminal act had taken place.