Carlin Hotel employees claim unpaid wages and unusual death of owner

by Kim Bowden and Lauren Pattemore - Mar 27, 2024

A number of former workers at the self-proclaimed 'six star' Carlin Hotel in Queenstown say they have not been paid, and that the circumstances of former owner Kevin Carlin's death in one of the hotel's suites were highly unusual. The workers say they were told by Mr Carlin to leave him alone in what was his regular penthouse room in December last year and that his decaying body was then found days later. Crux reporters have been investigating the workers' claims and details that are emerging around Mr Carlin's eccentric style of management.

A one-night stay at the Carlin Hotel will cost upwards of $2,000, every suite there boasts a private spa, and there's a Maserati and a Bentley parked out front, yet despite its external glitz and glamour, this month a number of staff members have been laid off with hours' notice, and it is unlikely the hotel will be able to pay out their annual leave or notice period.

The four workers spoken to by Crux had all relied on the hotel for their right to stay and work in New Zealand, and now they are scrambling to find alternative employers willing to take them on, as any chance of seeing the money they are owed appears slim.

Several of them have turned to the Citizens Advice Bureau in Queenstown for help, and staff are assisting them to apply for migrant exploitation protection work visas that would allow them to stay in the country for up to six months and work for any employer.

They say they have been instructed by their former employer not to talk to media. 

This week Crux put questions to Diana Matchett and Colin Gower, both of BDO Christchurch, who were appointed receivers for the companies behind the failing hotel in February, but our enquiries were passed on to Richard Inder, the director of public relations firm The Project.

Mr Inder has declined to answer questions, saying he is unable to comment on the specific claims made by the individuals Crux refers to.

"We have communicated clearly and confidentially with all stakeholders impacted by this receivership and will be formally responding to creditors when we release our first receivers report in early May," Mr Inder says.

All the workers spoken to by Crux confirm they received less than 24 hours' notice that their jobs at the hotel no longer existed.

One worker says they were recruited from overseas for the role of butler, and they had since brought their partner and young child to Queenstown too.

They were emotional as they spoke of their struggle to now support their family as they watch their savings dwindle.

"We are not prepared for this...Now to find a job is kind of difficult...I get a lot of calls when I pass over my CV but when they ask me, 'What's your current visa?', and I say 'I will need a sponsor', they say 'We will call you back', but they never call me back."

They say they have explained their situation to those now in charge at The Carlin.

"They don't even care, and they have said they can't do anything. When I send them an email they will never reply."

Another worker calculates they are owed more than $8,500 - a little more than half of that is outstanding holiday pay, and the rest, the four-weeks' notice period they would have been paid out as per their contract. 

They say it feels unfair they are out of pocket when the hotel is still taking paying guests.

"One night in the penthouse would pay us our money, and in our last week (working there), it was full for the entire week."

The phone call 

Two of the workers spoken to by Crux say news of them being laid off was delivered over the phone on Monday, March 11, by a person they had not heard of previously, but who said they represented the hotel.

One worker says they returned home from a full day working at the hotel and then received the call telling them not to return to work and that their sponsorship visa would expire the following day at midday.

The person recommended the worker contact Immigration New Zealand for assistance.

A follow-up email to workers from receiver Ms Matchett later that day confirmed the bad news.

The email also added a layer of confusion for the impacted workers, all who speak English as a second language.

It mentioned an "administration error" - simply, the workers were told that while their contracts, and visa sponsorships, were listed with 'The Carlin Hotel Limited', in reality it appeared 'Carlin Hotel Property Management Limited' - one of the company's behind the hotel and now in receivership - had been paying their wages and filing their tax.

"We cannot offer you ongoing employment during the receivership as you do not have a visa to work for the Company (Carlin Hotel Property Management Limited)," Ms Matchett said in the email.

Subsequent emails seen by Crux and sent to workers by a representative of the hotel confirm there are "no funds available" to pay the workers their outstanding holidays or notice periods.

The hotel went into receivership in late February. At the time of the receivership being announced, in a statement to media, Ms Matchett said the hotel would continue to "trade as normal" while new owners were sought.

"Guests can expect no disruption to their stay, while staff, suppliers, contractors, and service providers will continue to be paid as normal for all authorised post receivership goods and services supplied," she said in the statement.

One worker says they read this reported by media.

"It was in the newspaper.

"On the first day, they told us nothing would happen to the staff, the operation would remain the same.

"Then after a few weeks, things changed. They told us it would be our last day, we were getting terminated, and without any notice.

"They said they would work on our holiday pay; then in a few days they told us there is no money.

"What they did to us is really bad. If at least they give us some notice, like one month's notice, then we are prepared."

The workers spoken to by Crux suggest there are approximately eight former employees affected by the lay offs. Mr Inder declined to confirm this.

Work conditions and the unusual death of Kevin Carlin

Interviews with the former hotel employees this week have also revealed some claims of tough working conditions under the hotel's former owner, Kevin Carlin.

Mr Carlin lived at the hotel, where he died in December at age 69.

Workers have told Crux stories of eccentric behaviour by Mr Carlin.

They say his hands-on management style could be oppressive and highly unreasonable at times.

"He was the sort of person who loved to be angry with everybody - he would go and do an inspection just to be angry," one of the workers claims.

They say Mr Carlin would take pictures of "marks" on the floor and walls in the restaurant and in the hotel rooms, and every few weeks he'd print them out and compile them into a photo album and call a meeting with all staff members. 

Attendance was compulsory, even if it was your day off, they say. 

"He would say, 'My time is more important than your time, so you have to come'."

Before his death, Mr Carlin told staff not to disturb him and went into the hotel suite that he lived in. As a result of this instruction, several workers have told Crux his body was left undiscovered for several days.

They say when the room was eventually opened, they could smell the decay from the body. 

Media at the time of the death reported Mr Carlin had died of natural causes, with one reporter quoting a business partner who said he believed Mr Carlin "died of a sudden heart attack in his sleep".

However, the cause of Mr Carlin's death is still the subject of a coronial enquiry.

Police, who attended the scene, say that can't comment on Mr Carlin's death due to privacy concerns, referring Crux to the coroner. 

Several workers have told Crux that there was a high turnover of staff, but for them leaving did not feel like an option due to their reliance on the hotel for visa sponsorship.

"People could quit fast because they were on a working holiday visa, but, because I was on a sponsorship, I felt like I was in a jail," one worker says.

They say they saved up all their money to come to New Zealand. 

"It was really hard to make that money...We are away from our country, our family and our friends; we worked for one year for that money and, now, we don't have it."

Like other workers spoken to by Crux this week, they say they had never taken any holidays during their employment at the hotel.

"It's not fair, and that's why we are angry...It was hell when the owner was alive, and that hell continued after he passed away. We never have a moment of peace."

Meanwhile, The Carlin Hotel continues to take guests and market the hotel rooms. 

Read more:

'Six-star' Queenstown hotel in receivership

Minister to consider Queenstown trial to fast track help for exploited migrant workers

Process to freedom 'frustrating' for exploited Queenstown migrant workers

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