Australia-based executives at retail giant Uniqlo bullied and discriminated against a female HR manager due to her “caucasian heritage” and gave favourable treatment to men of “Asian descent”, an explosive legal claim alleges.
Melanie Bell, who worked at the Japanese clothing company’s Melbourne offices as payroll and human resource information system manager, is suing her former employer for at least $1 million in lost wages plus damages.
In a statement of claim filed with the Federal Court in Melbourne on Friday, the 47-year-old alleges she was bullied on at least four occasions by Uniqlo chief operating officer Kenji Tsuji and was held back from pay increases, promotions and professional advancement by chief financial officer Wataru Sasaki.
“The applicant believes that she was discriminated against because of her caucasian heritage and she was denied career advancement opportunities because of her gender,” court documents state.
“The respondent failed to promote the applicant and other non-Asian and female senior managers in the business while promoting other senior managers who were ex-pats and/or male and/or of Asian descent.”
Ms Bell left the Uniqlo in March 2018. She was working for mining company MMG Limited when she was initially approached by Uniqlo in 2015.
During her interview with then-chief executive Shiochi Miyasaki, she was allegedly told she would be “instrumental” in localising the business for the Australian retail environment and that she could expect “significant professional growth opportunities”.
But despite being recognised in an internal program as “global talent” and a “future leader”, and receiving performance review scores of either two, “exceeding expectations”, or three, “meeting expectations”, Ms Bell says she was denied those opportunities.
In one instance, according to Ms Bell’s claim, she was told by Mr Sasaki and Mr Tsuji during a performance review that she would not be promoted because of her “negative attitude” during March and April 2017. Ms Bell’s mother had passed away in March 2017, the claim says.
Ms Bell claims that in another performance evaluation, she was told she could not be promoted until the “Workday” HR software she had rolled out through the company had been “successfully implemented and in place” for six to 12 months. She was given a pay increase of $3000.
But an employee “of Asian background”, finance manager Cessna Avianto, was given a top performance review score of one — “substantially exceeding expectations” — for configuring the “SAP” finance system to be “ready for implementation”. He was promoted and given a pay increase of $8000.
“The applicant believes Mr Avianto’s promotion in February 2018 and his salary increase was an example of the discriminatory behaviour typical at the respondent,” the statement of claim says.
Uniqlo denies this, however, saying in its defence filing that Mr Avianto’s performance was “far superior” to Ms Bell.
In early 2017 her role was changed to manager of culture, strategy, safety and systems, and “became less focused on payroll and more focused on people and culture leadership and strategy”, the court document says.
She was not given a position description, goals or key performance indicators for the new role. In a subsequent performance review she was told she could not be promoted as she needed to “build relationships” with the Japan headquarters.
But she was prevented from doing so, according to her statement of claim, because Mr Sasaki had “made clear in various conversations” that he was the “bridge” between Uniqlo Australia and global HQ and “that it was his role to liaise with GHQ regarding human resource matters”.
Ms Bell claims she complained to her bosses in late 2017 that she was unhappy with the lack of direction in her new role and that she intended to resign in the future, but was assured by Mr Sasaki and Mr Tsuji that she was needed to help in leadership development.
Ms Bell claims she dedicated herself to the creation of a leadership development program, which was successfully implemented in an introductory stage. Around this time she claims she asked to attend the company’s global placement program in Japan, but Mr Tsuji denied her request.
He later cancelled a series of meetings to discuss the LDP for “trivial” reasons, and in emails made “demeaning, undermining” comments that conveyed he had a “lack of trust in her ability to perform the duties of her role”, according to her statement of claim.
Ms Bell is seeking compensation for loss and damage that includes ongoing loss of income, humiliation, pain and suffering, reputational damage, stress, sleep deprivation and anxiety, and diminished employment prospects.
Uniqlo denies the majority of Ms Bell’s accusations. The company said she was “not promoted due to her performance”, and that Mr Sasaki had “actively assisted” her in building relationships with global HQ.
Uniqlo said Ms Bell had requested the title change herself and that she “never sought the required approval from Mr Tsuji” before she commenced using it. It was never “officially changed” in the system, however.
It denied any bullying had occurred, describing the claim as “unnecessary and scandalous”. In relation to Mr Tsuji’s emails, Uniqlo noted “English is not Mr Tsuji’s first language” and that the “comments in the email were direct and polite when read in context”.
“We can confirm that Uniqlo’s former payroll and information systems manager Melanie Bell left the company on March 26, 2018. Ms Bell resigned from her position,” a spokeswoman said. “Whilst Uniqlo respects Ms Bell’s right to pursue claims through the legal system, the company denies the allegations made by her.”
McDonald Murholme declined to comment.
Uniqlo set up shop in Australia in 2012 and is now a major player in the $1.8 billion fast fashion sector with a 14 per cent market share, according to IBISWorld.