The System Has Failed Retail And Fast Food Workers, Says Coles Fair Work Winner


Duncan Hart recently won an important court action over underpayment of wages as an employee of supermarket giant Coles. He takes aim at his employer, and the union that failed to protect him.

The unprecedented wage theft at Australia’s largest employers, including Coles, Woolworths, Hungry Jack’s, KFC and McDonalds, and the “trade union” which helped to facilitate them, should be nothing less than a national scandal.

Thanks to a lengthy investigation by a group of dedicated reporters and the work of principled unionist Josh Cullinan, we now know the full extent of this theft.

Every roster examined at these large employers shows a majority of workers being paid less than they are entitled to under the federal workplace award.

The scale of this wage theft means roughly 250,000 workers (at least!) are receiving less than the supposed legal minimum- the award “safety net” upon which enterprise agreements are supposed to rest.

In monetary terms we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars every year finding its way into the pockets of corporate giants, rather than low wage workers.

Yet the problem is not new, and not confined to the latest round of enterprise agreements negotiated by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), the retail and fast food union.

Actually, we’re talking about 20-plus years, and billions of dollars lost to workers, thanks to the collaboration of the SDA and employers, since enterprise bargaining replaced centralised wage fixing in the early 90’s.

The SDA, and the employers, went into negotiations for enterprise agreements with eyes wide open about their purpose – they wanted to undermine penalty rates for weekends and night work in exchange for a higher base rate of pay.

In a 1999 interview with Woolworths’ National Employee Relations Manager, six years after the first agreement was signed between the company and the SDA, he explained that Woolies had estimated an 8 per cent saving on their total wages bill by moving from the award to the union agreement.

This first Agreement instated the all-too-familiar set-up for today’s retail and fast food giants – the total scrapping of penalty rates on Saturdays and between 6pm and midnight Monday through Friday, and a reduction of the Sunday rate.

This has been the model for every subsequent agreement signed between the SDA, and the employers able to strike a deal with it. Only now has there been an accounting of what this cost workers.

The recently revealed wage theft that has been facilitated by the SDA stretches back to the early 1990’s, but looking at retail wages even further reveals just how bad it is.

In 1974, on the back of strikes involving thousands of retail workers, the SDA – just before it was taken over by its current faction – achieved a NSW state award with an hourly rate for shop assistants of $19.57 in today’s dollars.

This hourly rate remains higher than the hourly rate as laid out in the modern award, which since July 2016 sits at $19.44 an hour.

By 1974, all the important features that still hang on in the modern award, such as penalty rates for night work and weekends and four weeks annual leave, were all established. Equal pay was only entirely introduced into the industry in the same year.

That’s the stark reality of the situation for retail and fast food workers today – our award entitlements today have not increased since the achievement of equal pay in 1974, 42 years ago.

And the SDA’s strategy of undermining award conditions for increases to the base rate of pay have left the majority of us earning less than our legal entitlements, even as those entitlements have stagnated.

As a union movement, we have to look reality in the face and learn the lessons of our past. The last 20 and more years have been years of betrayal for retail workers in this country.

The SDA leadership has failed to represent us workers politically, with its advocacy of far-right social positions around marriage equality and abortion rights, but it has also failed industrially.

Ex-ACTU president Bill Kelty was entirely wrong in his recent description of the SDA as motivated by “social justice”, when the results are so clear. Not only have we been betrayed by our union, but the system of enterprise bargaining facilitated this disgraceful situation.

The SDA, the employers and successive Labor and Liberal governments are all responsible for one of the greatest swindles in Australian history.

In these circumstances, the onus of responsibility lies on the rest of the union movement to step in. Stop making excuses for the SDA.

The SDA put itself on the wrong side during the recent Coles case, which blew the lid on this whole scandal. The fact that its entire modus operandi for over 20 years has been selling workers down the river in exchange for favourable treatment by employers means that the union is in no position now to lead the fightback necessary to turn the situation around.

Even if they tried to fight, it would be an open question how they could survive employer hostility given the SDA is heavily reliant on employer deductions of union dues from the weekly pay packets of members.

Unless other unions do what they can to push back, the festering sore of the SDA and its shameful deals for retail and fast food workers will continue to blight the entire union movement. For many young workers, the SDA is the first experience any of them have of unionism. Please do not let it be their last.

Duncan Hart is a member of Socialist Alternative and a rank-and-file member of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association. He recently won an appeal against the approval of the Coles Enterprise Agreement in the Fair Work Commission on the basis that the Agreement left many workers, including himself, earning less than they would under the General Retail Award.