Happy hour is especially happy for ladies on Wednesday nights at The Establishment, and Thursday nights at Blend. This is because the drinks are free-flowing, and the drinks are free. Girls turn up for free drinks. Guys turn up for free girls.
“It’s a really great night,” says Jono, Manager of Blend Bar on Wakefield Street. Blend provides free champagne and cocktail punch to women on Thursday nights. “There are lots of female students, lots of male businessmen, and everyone gets up and dances and has a great time.” Asked why the free drinks are only for the girls, Jono says it is simply business: “The girls are like a rent-a-crowd. They come for the free drinks, and the guys stay around for the atmosphere.”
While a win-win situation for some, providing free drinks to one gender and not the other is quite possibly illegal. Senior Lecturer at the Victoria University School of Law, Claudia Geiringer, says: “It’s hard to see, when looking at the Human Rights Act, whether anything there suggests this practice is not unlawful.” Providing goods and services at a favourable rate to a class of persons named under the 1993 Act is prohibited. It is discrimination.
Asked what is wrong with discrimination, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Commission, which administers the act, is careful not to give a blanket answer. “Discrimination in a broad sense happens all the time,” she says, “and plenty of it is justified: discrimination in the provision of health services, for example.” She goes on to note that there is no problem with discrimination in private life. So yes, once she is coaxed to your flat warming, you can ply that girl (and no one else) with free drinks without worrying that it is a crime against humanity.
But as soon as you enter the public realm as defined by the Act – by, say, operating a bar – it becomes a different story. “The Act is there to prevent unfair disadvantage to certain named groups,” continues the spokesperson. “It came about to protect against the classic cases of discrimination – homophobia, racism and the like – but of course there are much more subtle cases as well.”
The discrimination here is pretty easy to identify. Girls get free drinks, guys have to pay money. So, any old bloke could rock up to the Human Rights Commission and claim he is being discriminated against. While the Commission “does not investigate disputes,” says its spokesman, it would look into the situation and may seek some sort of dispute resolution. A warning to all the zealous law students out there however: playing with this human rights stuff might sound like fun, but it probably won’t be helping your love life so much.
Stu, General Manager of The Establishment on Courtney Place, chooses not to comment on the Human Rights Act itself, but certainly doesn’t think giving free champagne to girls is favouring them unfairly. “Officially, [Wednesday] is ladies’ night,” he says, “but obviously we don’t discourage guys from being there. In fact, we encourage it,” and with that, he rattles off half a dozen specials that students, male, female, or miscellaneous, can take advantage of every Wednesday. “Let’s face it,” continues Stu, “if you are a gentlemen out on the town and you see a pub full of females, naturally, you’re gonna go there. It’s good for both.”
Gerard Vaughan, Chief Executive of the Alcohol Advisory Board (ALAC) disagrees. “I would suggest premises offering free drinks may be laying themselves open to the possibility of prosecution under the Sale of Liquor Act for promoting excessive consumption,” he says. “There is a national protocol surrounding alcohol promotions on licensed premises which sets out what is acceptable and unacceptable. Although this is a guideline only, and the decision of what is acceptable, or unacceptable, will in the end be decided by the courts, the protocol explicitly lists ‘free drinks to women’ as an unacceptable practice.” Noting the particular vulnerability of young women, Vaughan continues, “Bar staff will have to be particularly vigilant to ensure no-one gets drunk and suffers alcohol-related harm.”
A spokesperson for the Hospitality Association of New Zealand (HANZ) acknowledges that ladies’ night promotions “go on from time to time,” and agrees with ALAC that the onus is on bar owners to make sure their promotions are safe. HANZ members, he says, are encouraged always to work within the bounds of the law, and will not encourage patrons to become intoxicated, but he sympathises with bars in a highly competitive market that are “just trying something a bit different to advance their business.”
There is a far bigger question to be asked here than “why don’t I get free champagne?” If you can choose to buy your significant other a drink without shouting everyone else in the bar, because it, well, advances your business, why do we not afford businesses the same opportunity to advance theirs? It is certainly true that the term “pub” is a shortening of the old phrase “public house,” and there may be a sense of community ownership of some drinking establishments, but if individuals are freely engaging in free champagne, are we really justified in trying to stop them?
The substantive qualms of ALAC probably carry more weight here than an airy-fairy notion of discrimination. After all, it is the harm that results from discrimination which justifies its prohibition. Bar owners who put their patrons in danger should be stopped, and most are eager to work to this end. “We make sure we provide free food to everyone on Thursdays,” says Jono of Blend. “If we got told we had to stop ladies’ night, of course we would stop. But it’d be a shame, because everyone, male and female, has a good time.”
Bar owners were pretty open and honest when interviewed. They all maintained that no one was being harmed by their promotions, and the fact that no complaints have to date been brought to them or the Human Rights Commission pretty well bears this out.
If you, the female reader, are thinking of heading out this week to take advantage of the free champagne offered to you, go ahead. Just make sure no one is taking advantage of you. Be aware that bars consider you a walking billboard. Free drinks for girls are designed to get girls into bars, for where they go, guys will invariably follow. “You know what girls are like,” says Jono. “The best advertising is word of mouth.” The more female mouths you have in your bar, the more there are available for talking to your male clientele and for doing whatever else it is you do with mouths in bars.
If you, the male reader, are feeling hard done by, bewailing your lost opportunity is probably valid. But it is also true that the female readers would be losing an opportunity if the free champagne stops flowing. Before you go admonishing the squads of spaghetti-strapped sippers enjoying their complimentaries at The Establishment and Blend, you should probably also know that the student discounts you yourself are enjoying that night might not be reconciled so easily with the Human Rights Act, either.
And, in the meantime, if you really want your belly filled with free bubbly, Jono promises to serve you on Thursday nights at Blend. “Just make sure you are wearing a skirt,” he says.