An Irishwoman of Thai descent has been awarded €12,000 by the Workplace Relations Commission, after a Starbucks employee drew ‘slanty eyes’ on her coffee cup.
In the ruling in the case, the WRC officer said the drawing was ‘as offensive and as unimaginative as a 19th-century Punch cartoon.’ .
Suchavadee Foley said she was shocked, nervous and uncomfortable when the employee drew an emoji of her face, with a smile and slanting eyes, rather than the usual practice of writing her name on the cup.
She said it happened on January 12 last year, at the Starbucks in Tallaght, Dublin, which she had visited with her boyfriend, Craig Porter. She said she had ordered a matcha tea latte, and started to spell a shortened version of her name to the employee, who then began to draw the face instead.
Ms Foley agreed that the CCTV showed her laughing when she was shown the drawing, but she said this was because she was nervous and unsure how to react. ‘The complainant said that this was not a normal encounter and she did not want to collect a cup with “slanty” eyes,’ noted WRC adjudication officer Kevin Baneham.
In cross-examination, the complainant outlined that she is Irish.
‘In closing comments, the complainant outlined that she felt offended as this incident demeaned her. She had been racially abused and this was not a friendly event,’ Mr Baneham said.
The WRC heard that the employee who drew the picture had not been working for long at Starbucks, and was originally from São Paulo in Brazil.
She said she did not mean any malice by her drawing, and that she had drawn the smiley face as she thought Ms Foley was very glamorous. She said she had been trained to be nice.
The employee said she initially did not understand what had caused offence. However, a supervisor, also from Brazil, and some Korean colleagues had explained that it could be seen as a problem.
The employee said that she was very sorry, and that she had not thought that Ms Foley would not like it. She said she had sought to make the cup easy for the complainant to identify.
The complaint was made under the Equal Status Act on grounds of race. Ms Foley asserted that the drawing was offensive to her because of the racial connotation and her Thai-Irish heritage.
Atercin Liffey Unlimited, trading as Starbucks in Tallaght, apologised, but asserted that the incident was not motivated by racism.
The WRC heard that Ms Foley had been offered vouchers by a supervisor on the day, who had seen the cup and had apologised on behalf of Starbucks.
Giving his conclusion, Mr Baneham said: ‘It is not disputed that the employee drew an image of a smile and “slanty” eyes on the cup as a way of marking it as the complainant’s.
The complainant has Thai-Irish heritage and it is clear that the visual depiction relates to her race. It is as offensive and as unimaginative as a 19th-century Punch cartoon.’
He said the Equal Status Act prohibits discriminatory conduct in the provision of services, such as going for coffee. He said the Act provides that an employer is vicariously liable for prohibited conduct of their employee where this occurs in the course of their employment, even without the employer’s knowledge or approval.
There is a defence to this, if employers can show that they took ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to prevent the employee from doing the act that constituted prohibited conduct.
Mr Baneham found that the incident constituted ‘unwanted conduct’ under the Equal Status Act.
‘This was not a drawing of the complainant, but a sketch of one part of her and one clearly associated with race,’ he said.
He accepted that it was not the employee’s intention to humiliate Ms Foley or make her feel uncomfortable, and that she regretted her drawing. However, he said: ‘It is clear that the drawing had a degrading and humiliating effect on the complainant It follows that harassment occurred within the ambit of the Equal Status Act.
Mr Baneham said Starbucks had no defence, as it had not provided sufficient information to staff about the power of drawings and pictures, and how they are perceived.
He awarded Ms Foley €12,000 in compensation.
A spokeswoman for Starbucks said: ‘We are deeply sorry that this incident took place and we have no tolerance for discrimination of any kind at Starbucks.
‘We accept the adjudicator’s conclusion that our partner did not intend to harass this customer and we have retrained the team at this store to ensure this does not take place again.’