Workers at Woolworths supplier paid a pittance, threatened
Ben Schneiders and Royce Millar
Published: March 6, 2016 – 5:39PM
A major supplier to supermarket giant Woolworths paid workers a pittance for working 72-hour weeks and threatened they would be replaced by machines if they joined a union.
The allegations, included in signed statements from workers provided to Fairfax Media, are the latest in a string of exploitation cases involving suppliers to Coles and Woolworths.
They involve allegations of unlawful conduct and serious breaches of Woolworths’ own ethical sourcing policy.
Sana Ullah, a former worker at carrot producer Zerella, told Fairfax Media he did not receive a cent of overtime despite working regular 12-hour shifts until 5am packing carrots.
Working 72-hour weeks at a flat rate of just over $17 an hour with no penalty rates, Mr Ullah was paid well below the current award – the wages safety net.
Mr Ullah, who had been an engineer in Pakistan, took the carrot packing job when he could not find work he needed to support his family.
“I tried for two to three months to find some suitable work. I had no other option.”
In the statements provided to Fairfax Media, eight other workers have described harsh working conditions at Zerella’s farm and shed north of Adelaide.
They include allegations of management union-busting and of brackish, barely drinkable water for workers at the carrot packing shed.
They also support claims by Mr Ullah – who no longer works at Zerella – about being paid flat rates despite often working six or sometimes seven days a week.
Workers allege management:
- Showed them pictures of new machines and told them they would be replaced by them if they joined the National Union of Workers.
- Pressured workers at a meeting to sign forms resigning from the union en-masse.
- Told them they would be paid less if they were union members.
- Would send text messages to workers with little notice, ordering them to work at 2am.
The new cases of exploitation come after ABC’s Four Corners last year revealed the widespread exploitation of workers in the agriculture sector and later at 7-Eleven.
In October, a separate Fairfax Media investigation revealed across the economy, hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers were being illegally exploited.
It showed 80 per cent of foreign language job advertisements were offering wages below legal rates. Many of them were openly advertised as “black jobs”.
Powerful supermarkets are renowned for pressuring suppliers to cut costs. Unions say this has been a big factor in cases of worker exploitation in the barely unionised farm sector.
At Zerella’s Virginia farm, it is estimated by employees there are at least 100 workers, mainly migrants from countries such as India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
When Sana Ullah first worked at Zerella, he was employed as a casual, through a contractor, and says he was illegally underpaid. He was later made a direct employee of Zerella at just above the minimum wage, but he received no overtime.
Workers at Zerella are still covered by an agreement, signed when the former Howard government’s WorkChoices industrial laws were in effect, that has provisions for employees to “request” to work overtime without penalties.
Mr Ullah said management made it clear to workers they would not be paid the penalties.
He said safety on site was poor. He is now in Melbourne looking for a work as an engineer.
NUW national secretary Tim Kennedy, whose union is pushing for a new workplace agreement at Zerella on higher rates, said conditions were “appalling”.
“What we have here is another example of a major supplier to Woolworths doing the wrong thing by workers,” he said. “Intimidation and threats are not only against federal workplace laws in Australia, they are against Woolworths’ own ethical sourcing policy.”
Mr Kennedy said “basic rights” to clean water and lunchrooms needed to be provided to all workers. “What we’re talking about is bringing pay and conditions up to at least minimum standards,” he said.
Zerella, which is owned by wealthy New Zealand agriculture investors the Pye family, did not respond to requests for comment.
Woolworths, which buys 250 tonnes of carrots from Zerella a week, said its suppliers should operate within industrial law but did not respond directly to questions about conditions at Zerella.
Opposition workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor attacked Zerella for its treatment of its workers and said the Turnbull government had to do more to combat worker exploitation.
“Given the Liberals have taken no action in the face of notable examples of worker exploitation, Labor urges them to support our private members bill, which will deter exploitation of workers by significantly increasing penalties for the sort of behaviour we’ve seen at Zerella.”