Young people working in the service industry in Finland have been subjected to threats of violence, murder and rape by customers, according to the results of an Yle investigation.
The probe also found that many young employees of fast food restaurants and service stations work alone during evening and night shifts, and often have to deal with drunk customers, sexual harassment or emergency situations on their own, with very little support available.
Helsinki-resident Meeri* told Yle that when she began working at a busy service station at the age of 18, she was "horrified" to realise that she would have to work evening and night shifts on her own, especially considering she had received relatively little training.
Her fears were well-founded, as she was soon calling the police on a regular basis during the late shifts.
"I don't understand how such burdens can be placed on one person, especially on an 18-year-old girl," the former Shell service station employee said.
In addition to people driving away without paying for the petrol or diesel they had just pumped into their vehicles, Meeri recalled how alcohol and tobacco products were frequently shoplifted. She also had to endure abuse from intoxicated customers, without a guard being present at the station during late-night hours or an alarm button to alert the police.
Meeri is far from the only young person to have experienced working an evening or night shift alone. A recent survey conducted by the service sector union PAM found that 23 percent of service workers under the age of 25 had worked either completely or at least most of the working day on their own.
Following on from the PAM survey, Yle asked young people about working conditions in the service sector via an online survey. The 350 respondents reported issues including being excessively busy, poor management standards and unpaid overtime.
Many of the respondents also reported feelings of insecurity experienced at work, which some felt especially during evening and night shifts when they were left alone.
Yle conducted follow-on interviews with eight of the survey's respondents, who had reported experiencing sexual harassment, physical violence, robberies and threatening situations at work. Some of the interviewees had even received death and rape threats from customers.
Meeri and most of the other young people interviewed by Yle for this article appear anonymously because they are concerned that speaking publicly about their experiences could affect their future job prospects. The young people interviewed for the story have all resigned from their previous positions at some point in the last three years.
Alarm only usable "in case of robbery"
Former employees of the R-kioski outlets told Yle that there was an alarm button in stores, but they had been instructed by supervisors to only press it in "robbery situations".
In response to this revelation, the chain's Occupational Safety and Health Manager Erkki Lax said that employees should be instructed to call for help at all times when there is an emergency situation.
"R-kioski employees are never completely alone, as the chain’s service centre is accessible to staff by phone or through an internal communication channel whenever kiosks are open," Lax said.
However, a woman in her twenties who worked for R-kioski in Helsinki this year told Yle that she is amused by the chain's response.
"If you call the service centre, you have to wait from between half a minute to a couple of minutes for a response. There is really no point in calling [the centre] if someone in the store is stealing or making threats," she said.
According to Lax, the service centre's response time is less than 30 seconds.
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A former employee of the nationwide juice and smoothie chain Jungle Juice Bar told Yle that some of the chain's outlets do not have an alarm or panic button that could alert a guard or the authorities to an unfolding emergency.
In addition, she said that employees have been instructed to only contact security services in the event of a life-threatening situation.
"Can a young person really assess for himself or herself whether something is a life-threatening situation? I have received death threats and I have been physically grabbed," the former employee of the juice bar recalled.
She added that it is difficult to contact security because employees are not allowed to bring their own phones to workstations, in accordance with the chain's instructions. The only option therefore, she pointed out, would be to call for security on the office's landline phone.
However, this can often only further escalate the situation, she said.
The workload and burden on young employees has been a hot topic of discussion on the anonymous chat service Jodel, which is popular with young people. Fast food chain Hesburger’s "intolerable" demands on its young employees emerged on the same social media channel at the end of August, eventually becoming national news.
Earlier this week, Hesburger management said it had already taken action to address the issues raised and that the company plans to listen to its employees and improve their working conditions in the future.
Drunken, late-night customers
A woman in her twenties who worked at the fast food submarine sandwiches chain Subway in 2019 also reported to Yle that there was no panic button in the outlet she worked in.
This especially became an issue when she had to work weekend night shifts on her own or with just one other female colleague, she said, in particular as many drunken customers came into the restaurant after bars had closed.
Staff repeatedly told management that they did not feel safe working alone at night, she recalled.
One Subway franchisee informed Yle that he told his employees the restaurant should not be kept open on Friday nights if there were only two employees on duty.
"A meeting was held where I said that I would either close the outlet or someone could do it alone if they wished to do so," he said.
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Erik Yomans, 25, worked in a Hesburger outlet in the city of Turku for five years. He said that the restaurant he worked in did have an alarm button that could be pressed in an emergency situation.
However, he added that not all new employees knew about the existence of the button because the understaffed restaurant did not have time to fully train employees or familiarise them with all aspects of the job.
Yomans, who also worked as a shift manager with the fast food burger chain, said he is willing to speak publicly about his experiences working in the services sector under his own name because he has waited a long time for these issues to be discussed publicly.
Chains cannot respond to queries about security issues
Yle asked Kesko, S-Group, R-kioski, Scandic, Neste and St1 for a response to their former employees' reports of working alone at night and the related issues of occupational health and safety.
None of the chains could provide exact figures on how many young people worked alone during the evening or at night.
In their replies, R-kioski, ST1 and Kesko emphasised that individual franchise-holders and retailers are independently responsible for the operation of their business premises and are thus also responsible for the security of the outlets.
In addition, the chains said that they could not make public statements about security issues, as this is sensitive information.
According to the chains that responded to Yle, the safety of employees is improved by adequate orientation into the working environment, safety training and the availability of security staff.
Threats of murder, rape
According to the results of the PAM union's survey, more than half of service sector workers have experienced being threatened with violence at work.
The survey also found that an even higher percentage of people have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and this was especially high among younger employees. More than 70 percent of those under the age of 25 surveyed by PAM reported having experienced sexual harassment at work.
"I have been threatened with being killed, beaten and raped while at work," said the former Jungle Juice Bar employee mentioned earlier in this article.
Threatening situations and harassment, she said, were commonplace at work, and she added that she has repeatedly expressed her fears and concerns to the chain's district manager.
"It is not a matter of the company's management not knowing, they are just not that interested," she said.
Elli Holappa, CEO of Jungle Juice Bar, said that the chain decided to close one outlet in Helsinki in 2019 due to feedback received from employees about the working conditions. The employees had reported feeling insecure, especially when working shifts alone.
The former Jungle Juice Bar employee interviewed by Yle said that almost all of her colleagues were females under the age of 25 years old. She began working for the chain at the age of 19, and the average age of a Jungle Juice Bar service employee is between the ages of 18 and 20.
Supervisors rarely intervene
Another interviewee, a woman in her twenties who worked at an ABC service station in the Uusimaa region, told Yle that the outlet's "vakkareista" (roughly translated as "regulars", men who spent a lot of time at the station) would often engage in sexual harassment of the female staff.
It was quite normal practice for the middle-aged men to choose their "own favourite" from among the female employees, she recalled, who they would then "besiege" with requests and comments throughout the shift.
"One always paid with coins because he wanted to touch hands when he got the change back. Another told me he would be waiting for me at the front door when I left work to go home. It became a really disgusting and scary feeling," she said.
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The young female employees formed a protective "gang", which they would use to warn each other about the behaviours of certain customers, the former employee said.
She added that supervisors rarely intervened when the customers harassed staff, except occasionally reminding the customer not to be rude.
"Failed as an employer"
Mikko Koskinen, head of the S-Group's Risk Management Unit, admitted to Yle that ABC — which belongs to the S Group — has failed as an employer in the situation described by the interviewee.
He added that similar situations could be avoided if the supervisor and other employees encouraged young workers to report negative work-related issues.
Tarja Kuittinen, vice president of Restel service stations, said that the threats of violence and the dangers employees face are increased when workers are alone. Kuittinen commented on the experiences described by Meeri, a former employee of a Shell service station.
"When colleagues do not have access to help when needed, it is understandable that the employee may feel insecure. In addition, even taking a break and going to the toilet [when the only person on duty] is challenging," Kuittinen said, adding that her chain's service stations work with a security company to provide protection to employees as required.
According to Sampsa Puttonen, a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, employers should provide employees with clear instructions on how to deal with threatening or emergency situations. He added that while experienced workers may know how to handle certain situations, younger employees have not yet built up the confidence to do so in the same ways.
Taking the first steps into working life is not only about being able to perform work-related tasks, Puttonen said, but is also about knowing how to act in emergency situations.
"Young people should not be left alone with such things," he concluded.
*Meeri's name was changed to protect the interviewee's real identity.