This week saw the beginning of a long campaign to save the jobs of hundreds of workers at Woolworths’ Distribution Centre in Hume, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
Woolworths recently announced its plan to shut down its shed in the north and relocate operations to the other side of Melbourne, in Dandenong.
The National Union of Workers joined, on a cold August night, with the community to hold a public meeting about a plan for secure jobs in the north, an area of Melbourne plagued with unemployment levels of up to 26.4 per cent (in Broadmeadows, where our meeting was held) and which has experienced industrial decimation recently, with the closure of many factories including Ford.
One of our delegates spoke, as did community worker Melanie Raymond from outreach organisation Youth Projects, and Federal Labor MPs Kelvin Thomson and Maria Vamvakinou.
I unfortunately cannot name our smart, passionate delegate because the company are aggressive in pursuing those who speak up for their rights.
This relationship of master and servant is becoming increasingly commonplace in corporate Australia and takes power away from ordinary people.
All of these community leaders stood with our workers and their families to unite against corporate greed and plan ways to protect jobs and create opportunities.
This meeting – the beginning of a campaign – was distinguished by the solidarity in the room between politicians, workers, families and local residents.
Woolworths is one of the country’s largest retailers. A publicly listed company with a rising share-price, it also employs some 200,000 people nationally.
The company brought in a staggering $62 billion in revenue just in the last year. It wields tremendous power with governments, with its clients and its customers. In short, Woolworths occupies a very privileged position in Australia.
The closure of the Hume Woolworths Distribution Centre will impact directly upon 680 families in this area, not to mention all the support services and small business that will also be impacted by this devastation.
Hume is in an area that has always worn the mantle of being disadvantaged ever since its rapid development post-second world war. This is an area that is still trying to come to terms with the closure of the car industry, and what this will mean for the community.
The loss of the additional jobs at Woolworths will cause further distress to workers and their families, and place additional pressures on the social infrastructure in the north.
The postcode of 3047 – Broadmeadows – is the most disadvantaged postcode in Melbourne. It has both the highest unemployment and youth unemployment rates for a metropolitan area in the state.
Woolworths has always had a warehouse in the north. First, the shed was in Brunswick but as time went on a move was made to Somerton. Then, 17 years ago more space was needed and the Distribution Centre was relocated to where it now is in Hume.
Woolworths has historically been an employer offering great opportunity to the communities in Melbourne suburbs, with good secure jobs with decent conditions.
It is because of this record of commitment to the north that the NUW and the community are so surprised by the announced closure.
Is it just because the conditions are good and the union is strong?
Our Hume DC members are real people with real lives. They’re not simply numbers on a page to be considered only as parts of a maths equation.
In making its decision to pack up and leave, Woolworths did not consult with any stakeholders. There was no respect for any worker, any community member. They timed their meetings with the Union, the Victorian Industry Minister’s office, the workforce and the media all for the afternoon of June 9.
Most workers were informed of the decision by text message. There was not even a veneer that any Corporate Social Responsibility considerations were taken into account. This is not good enough.
This is a company whose corporate failings in the community are beginning to be known to us. In May this year Four Corners exposed slave like conditions in the fresh supply chain where 4th, 5th and 6th tier labour hire workers are being paid as little as $3.95.
Woolworths and their major competitors drive prices so low in the supply chain – again ignoring the consequences – that the workers at the end of the supply chain have no dignity in their lives.
At their Liquor DC in Laverton, Woolworths Management are introducing labour hire into their sheds, although there is a written agreement in place between the union and Woolworths stating that this cannot occur until subsequent re-negotiation of the agreement.
There is no respect even when this intent is formalised in writing. In every sense of the phrase, Woolies are Bullies.
Governments give tremendous tax incentives to companies like Woolworths to provide secure jobs. It is those tax dollars that provide us with the essential transport, education, support services and social infrastructure that we all need to progress in life.
Big companies have a responsibility to the communities that they have become a part of. And this goes the same for all big business, not just Woolworths.
The National Union of Workers understands that we are just one small part of the wider Hume community, and we’re honoured to be a part of it.
This community has always been so diverse and yet so supportive of one another. But you can’t tackle a problem this big by yourself.
This campaign is about finding the links that join us, to hold companies like Woolworths to account. This campaign is about organising ourselves and formulating plans so that the economy also works for us – and not the other way around.
In short this campaign is for respect and dignity through secure employment in Melbourne’s north, and we need you on board.
To be a part of our campaign, join our community membership program by clicking here.
* Gary Maas is the secretary of the Victorian branch of the National Union of Workers.
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