'Everything was getting swept under the rug, so we decided that enough was enough'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

The Punks with Purpose movement came about in the summer of 2021, calling out a "toxic" environment and a "Culture of fear" at brewdog at a time when hospitality industry was going through its own moment of reckoning.

Charlotte, now the head brewer at a South London brewery, worked at Brewdog for a long time and had been well versed in conversations about poor working conditions and incidents that left staff feeling uncomfortable, including accounts of bullying and harassment on a routinely basis.

But it wasn't just in the UK that accounts were surfacing - reports of sexism and unacceptable behaviours inflicted on people working for brewers in the United States, in production as well as in front of house were emerging anonymously on social media.

"All sorts of really unpleasant things," Charlotte said in an interview with The Staff Canteen.

"Brewdog specifically were implicated in a lot of those, and James Watts particularly was named many many times." 

And while in the States a lot of the people who were named stood down or were fired from their roles, in the UK, peoples concerns were met with silence. 

"Everything was really swept under the rug and anyone who was publishing or even retweeting accusations was hit with cease and desist letters. So we decided that enough was enough."

Beyond the allegations of sexism, she said, "the wider implications were really quite grave too; that's why we published the letter"-  signed by more than 300 people, current or former employees at Brewdog -  "because James was getting away with saying absolutely nothing and we thought that was really s**t, that he shouldn't be allowed to get away with that sort of thing." 

What's more, she said, "the amount of people who disclosed things to me off the record showed that it wasn't even contained to within Brewdog. Other breweries were hit with spurious lawsuits, all really time wasting and just massive bullying tactics."

"He's been getting away with it for an awfully long time, so we decided that enough was enough, and that if he wasn't going to address it, we were going to make him address it."

After the letter

The various measures taken by the company in the wake of the letter being published have failed to meet the mark, and the group hopes to see real change within the company, including union representation. 

Currently, Charlotte said, "it does all feel like it's for show and none of it is actually real." 

The internal employee review body can influence people's reports through HR, the diversity consultant is working with low-level staff, "and is probably never going to meet the CEOs of the company." 

"They can stress upon the people working in the bars, in reception and on the production floor very aware of the increased need for diversity in the team, but unless they can speak to the people in charge, it's just a showpiece, it shows that they don't care," she added. 

As for addressing the allegations raised by Punks With Purpose signatories, the group was contacted by the company - but has reached out to those who manage the group rather than to the letter's signatories. 

"They want us to do the work for them, to put them in contact and be the go-between. That's a lot of unpaid for labour from us to improve their company - they should be doing the hard work, contacting these people and making it easy for them to show them that it's a safe environment." 

"It's not our job to improve their company for them; we made them aware that this is what's happening even though they're already aware. We made the wider public aware - and that's the only reason that they acted, because it damaged their reputation." 

"It's been very poorly handled thus far," she said, proving to them that "they don't actually care."

The effect on Brewdog as a company is undeniable, if nothing else than the commercial impact, as crowfunders have grown jaded and the general mood seems to have swung against it.

In Charlotte's opinion, "the landscape has changed for them," as social media has become a place where James Watts' posts boasting the company's merits are now most unwelcome. 

"I also look at is as an insider from the brewing world, and whenever I see someone outside of the industry they ask me about it." 

The impact, now and in the future

That is to say, what will the effect of people working in brewing and hospitality having taken a stand against unacceptable attitudes and practices?

For Charlotte and the Punks With Purpose, especially in light of staffing issues plaguing both industries, there's no going back.

"There's always been an assumption that there'll be a constant flow of people who are going to be willing to accept poor working conditions, either through necessity or the fact that they just don't care that much. I think that's really changed in the past couple of months - in hospitality and brewing, you can't get away with advertising a job for £10.45 an hour." 

"It is changing for the better." 

"For so long it's just been that your passion's part of your pay and you're always expected to put up with long working hours and unpleasant working conditions because you've chosen this particular path that isn't your standard 9-5 job. So because of that you should accept that your life is going to be more difficult? That really needs to change and people need to be looked after." 

"The staffing crisis that we're seeing in hospitality after Covid has really solidified how important people are to the industry. For the longest time it's just been, 'well you can just get a waitressing job to tie you over for a while.' I don't think that's really going to fly any longer." 

"People need proper pay, proper care. I really hope that that's going to change."

Is this the last we hear from Punks With Purpose?

Possibly, but only in its current form. That doesn't mean its members have stopped fighting for their cause.

When it comes to challenging Brewdog, "we're quite limited on what we can do," Charlotte explained, "we just need to let them get on with the internal investigation and see what comes of that." 

That having been said, "we can also amplify any other things that are going on in brewing and in hospitality," which they do by fundraising for charities like The Drinks Trusts, which provides mental health support and financial assistance to people in the drinks industry, as well as working with the press to connect them with people who want to tell their stories. 

"We want to tell them but we can't," she explained. "That's a really slow burning process because they have to do due diligence and work out what they can report and what they can't." 

In any case, she added,"there are still stories to be told and stories that are going to come out." 

Thanks have come to the group for their work, because by bringing the issues they did to the fore, they have given people a voice. 

"It emboldened a lot of people to tell their stories and I think that's a really important watershed. I'm really glad that we're able to do it." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 28th September 2021

'Everything was getting swept under the rug, so we decided that enough was enough'