Reading Time: 3 minutes
Woolworths has admitted underpaying nearly 6000 supermarket staff at least $300 million over 10 years in the latest high-profile wage theft scandal. The Socialist spoke to a Woolworths worker who explained the scam.
As the nation’s largest private employer, the theft carried out by Woolworths goes to the heart of how Australian capitalism treats workers. Last financial year the Fair Work Ombudsman recovered $40 million in stolen wages for 18,000 workers. Clearly that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Thousands more workers are regularly paid less than Award rates, not paid for extra hours worked, or duded out of their superannuation entitlements.
Further investigations are now underway across other Woolworths brands that will likely uncover millions more in stolen wages. The Socialist will feature further reports in the coming months.
The Socialist: How long have you worked for Woolworths and what is it like?
Woolworths worker: I have worked at Woolworths supermarkets for over 10 years. My co-workers are great. I work with people from all around the world. I’ve made lots of great friends and have learned a lot, but management are terrible.
They cut hours out of the roster wherever they can and sped up the work with bullying and pressure tactics. Being casual is hard but even for part-time and full-time staff they regularly change their rostered hours to suit company budgets and profit goals.
The Socialist: Do you believe the CEO when he says the underpayment was an honest mistake? He says there is no “cultural problem”.
Woolworths worker: No way! That’s just corporate spin to try and limit reputational damage. The truth is the bosses at Woolworths are always looking at ways to squeeze more money out of their staff, but this time they got caught red handed stealing wages.
They just decided to come clean before the Retail And Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) could get the drop on them and expose the scandal first.
The Socialist: So, what exactly were the bosses doing?
Woolworths worker: They systemically undermined secure working hours and a living wage for their staff by cutting back full-time supermarket staff to almost none. They use ‘department managers’ and assistant managers as their full-time backbone and roster casuals and part timers around them.
Instead of getting paid hourly wages as outlined in the Award, department managers are put on individual salaried contracts. Then they get pressured and bullied to work lots of unpaid overtime, virtually every day.
The Socialist: So how did that result in such huge wage theft?
Woolworths worker: Woolworths were supposed to pay them the higher amount of either their contracted salary or the wage they would have made for the hours they worked under the Award. Their salaries are nearly always less, but that’s all Woolworths ever paid.
The Socialist: So, this doesn’t affect regular floor staff, just department and store managers?
Woolworths worker: Well it was frontline managers who had their wages stolen, but it does affect everyone else. It puts downward pressure on everyone’s wages and the rostered hours available to be worked.
If Woolworths had to pay appropriate overtime the under-employment crisis wouldn’t be as bad.
The Socialist: How do you think Woolworths workers should respond?
Woolworths worker: Retail workers at Woolworths, and throughout the sector, need to be organised in a fighting trade union so that we can enforce our own standards of pay by working together. We can’t rely on the Fair Work Ombudsman to do it for us.
The Socialist: So, you don’t think the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) fits that description then?
Woolworths worker: Not at all. For decades retail workers have been screwed by the SDA. It’s a union that’s run by extreme conservatives. They do more for the bosses than the workers they are supposed to represent.
They have a cosy deal with the bosses that allows them to sign up new employees at company inductions. Their high membership figures, at least on paper, give the SDA officials political power in the Labor Party. The SDA is a yellow union that needs to be replaced.
The new RAFFWU is making some promising break throughs and it would be a real step forward if they could become the main union at Woolworths. They have a more serious approach to defending workers pay and conditions. That’s the union I’m a member of, we need to build it throughout the industry.