YCW Worker Story: “Coles workers worse off under deal with shoppies union”

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The following article was written and published in Melbourne’s The Age last Sunday by Holdings member and long-term YCW leader, Josh Cullinan.

Thousands of low-paid workers will be worse off under a deal struck between supermarket giant Coles and the shop assistants union.

EXCLUSIVE

Thousands of low-paid workers will be worse off under a sweetheart deal struck between supermarket giant Coles and the shop assistants union that undercuts workplace laws, an analysis shows.

A detailed analysis of the deal by senior union official Josh Cullinan, provided to Fairfax Media, indicates that younger workers are the hardest hit by the agreement which covers more than 75,000 workers.

Mr Cullinan, who works for the National Tertiary Education Union, but did the analysis in a personal capacity, estimated Coles could be saving more than $20 million a year in wages by underpaying its staff.

The deal is before the Fair Work Commission, which is required to test if it leaves individual workers “better off overall” when compared to the retail award, the basic wages safety net.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Illustration: Matt Golding via The Age

Mr Cullinan – who has more than a decade of experience in negotiating and drafting collective agreements – said the Coles and Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees (SDA) agreement was clearly in breach of that test.

It comes after a recent Fairfax investigation uncovered that the SDA pays major retailers including Coles and Woolworths up to $5 million a year in commissions for payroll deductions.

The payments help maintain its large membership and influence in Labor where the conservative SDA plays a significant role in social policy debates such as same-sex marriage.

The Coles agreement comes amid mounting labour movement concern about deteriorating workplace standards in Australia notably including in food processing linked to the supermarket giants, and graphically highlighted by ABC Four Corners’ expose this month of the mistreatment of foreign workers.

Business groups are pressing hard for a reform of penalty rates. The South Australian branch of the SDA has upset other unions with its recent historic template agreement with South Australian business, allowing penalties be cut in exchange for higher wages.

Mr Cullinan said it was “manifestly clear” that many Coles staff will be “much worse off” under the Coles agreement that was recently approved by staff in a national vote. He said almost all 17-year-old workers and many 18-year-olds will be worse off.

Many adult workers will lose out when they work more than half their hours on a weekend or week night.

Vulnerable workers such as high school and university students, carers and people rejoining the workforce were more likely to work weekends or weeknights. “It is these workers who will be most at risk of being worse off.”

The agreement provides for only a 20 per cent loading for casual staff, compared to 25 per cent under the award as well as significantly lower weekend penalty rates, in some cases nearly half the award rate.

That was not offset in many cases by the higher base rate of pay under the agreement, Mr Cullinan said.

Coles failed to answer directly when asked whether any workers would be worse off under the deal.

“This is for the commission to decide,” said Coles director of retail and supply chain Andy Coleman. “In the unlikely event the commission did find any anomalies, we will work with them to address them.”

Mr Coleman described the agreement as a “great EBA” backed by 90 per cent of workers who voted for the deal which includes an pay increase above inflation.

SDA national secretary Gerard Dwyer said he was confident the workplace tribunal would approve the deal and said it “actually sets a new high water mark for conditions in the retail sector”. The Queensland branch of the Australian Workers Union is also a signatory to the deal, but represents far fewer workers at Coles than the SDA.

Mr Cullinan based part of his analysis on a three-week roster from a section of a Coles store in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Of 16 workers on the roster, 11 were worse off under the agreement.

At the Coles store, one 26-year-old worker would be as much as $1500 a year worse off, or nearly 10 per cent of his wage.

Another 17-year-old casual worker, who did short weekend shifts, was also considerably worse off.

Mr Cullinan, said on average, workers in that section of the store were 3.4 per cent worse off.

A worker at the store, who asked not to be named, said he had no idea that he was being underpaid when compared to the award. “I didn’t really look into it.”

An SDA organiser came recently to the store to sell the merits of the agreement but staff felt hesitant to ask questions as an assistant store manager was present throughout the meeting, he said.

While the Fair Work Commission is required to test whether agreements are “better off overall” when compared to the award, senior industrial relations sources questioned how rigorous this process was.

Some agreements involving the SDA have been rejected in the workplace tribunal for leaving workers worse off, including a 2010 deal with McDonald’s and a 2003 deal with Hungry Jacks.

To submit your own worker story, please include 250-500 words on your experience or opinion on an issue affecting yourself or young people, include your first name, age, gender and location, and let us know if you wish to remain anonymous. Email your story and the above details to eliza.cruse@ycw.org.au.

By submitting your story to the AYCW, you are giving permission for your story to be shared amongst leaders of the YCW in preparation for our National ROLWA Gathering. 

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