People around Australia were rightly shocked to hear that 7 Eleven workers have been significantly exploited and underpaid, sometimes going without meals for several days because the franchisee hasn’t paid them at all.
Now United Petroleum workers are coming forward with similar stories of exploitation.
Even Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s apparent slip up when he mentioned Subway, rather than 7 Eleven, is probably not actually far from the reality.
The National Union of Workers (NUW) helped uncover exploitation on farms and poultry sites across Australia in a Four Corners program, Slaving Away, in May this year. In that program, investigative journalists followed our fresh food through the supply chain to outlets and major retailers including Subway, Coles and Woolworths.
It is clear from the public response to these programs that Australians are fair-minded people and do not like it when workers are ripped off and exploited.
It is also clear that labour exploitation and insecure work are on the rise in our country. In fact this phenomenon is a major driver of the growing inequality in this country.
Many people have asked me on seeing the recent Four Corners program, where were the unions? It is a good question.
The fact is, when workers are active members of unions decent jobs, which provide people with decent lives, can be achieved.
The decline in union membership in this country is having a negative effect on our egalitarian society. Workers need the right to join unions and collectively bargain. Unionism is good for our society and it is good for people.
While the underpayment and mistreatment of workers is shocking and needs to be fixed, there is a greater systemic issue at play in our workplaces. It is the shifting of risk from corporations onto individual workers.
The rise of insecure work generates the exploitative practices we are now seeing. This new dynamic is present in all parts of our economy.
It is hard for individual workers to stand up to a boss that is mistreating them. It is often futile for a lone worker to demand legal payment, or proper breaks, or an end to bullying or racism – especially if that worker is employed via one of the many forms of insecure work in Australia.
If you are casual, labour hire or cash in hand, and you ask for your work life to improve or unfair treatment to stop – more than likely, you don’t get called back.
Many third-party employers, franchises and labour hire producers cut corners to make money. Workers often suffer without redress and are too often told, by the likes of Hockey and Abbott, they are lucky to have a job at all.
We disagree. A job should provide a person with the means to lead a full life, but we seem to be on a slippery slope towards a meaner world. A world where there is a growing divide between winners and losers. There is a question here about whether we, as a country, want to build a cohesive society or a mean, shortsighted economy for the privileged few?
After Four Corner’s Slaving Away program the NUW has continued to organise with workers in the fresh food supply chain. From the giant glasshouse factories that produce the tomatoes for Coles and Woolworths to the workers in the major cold storage facilities and warehouses, we are committed to all workers: full time, casual, labour hire, workers on temporary visas, or working cash in hand.
We can create a society where everyone gets a “fair go”, but it requires workers’ being able to organise.
* Tim Kennedy is the National Secretary for the National Union of Workers.