- The Guardian
- Issue #2074
Photo: Bidgee – Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5 AU Deed).
Coles and Woolworths workers were the essential worker heroes of our pandemic. They turned up to work throughout the entire pandemic, thrown onto the frontline while the employers were slow to put safety measures in place. They got sick, their families got sick. Their loved ones were put in harm’s way while Coles and Woolworths made mega profits.
The dirty little Coles and Woolies secret is that those workers were and still are paid poverty wages – among the lowest in Australia. They have unsafe workplaces where abuse, assaults, threats, and harassment are a daily reality and their jobs are insecure.
Through the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU), now they are fighting back. Industrial action is underway at Woolworths and commenced on Friday 6th October at Coles. With the employers refusing to offer anything on any claim at the bargaining table, workers are striking.
These are the first national strikes at supermarkets in Australian history.
On Saturday 7th October at 10 am local time, those workers stopped work for 2 hours. Supermarket workers will come together and continue their calls for Woolworths Supermarkets and Coles Supermarkets to pay living wages, make workplaces safe and provide secure jobs.
In retaliation for Friday’s bans, Coles has directed that it will stand down every worker who implements a ban and not pay them at all. This includes a ban on cleaning up vomit or bodily fluids, cleaning the manager’s toilet, or talking to customers about the action.
Coles pays poverty wages, then threatens to take even those meagre wages away from any worker who dares to stand up.
To avoid doubt, workers are not paid for striking and workers at Coles engaging in bans on Friday 6th October were not paid by Coles. Refusing to pay workers while they ban limited work is a choice by Coles in its ruthless exploitation of workers. Woolworths has not made the same choice and is not currently refusing to pay workers implementing bans.
Retail workers in Australia have historically been low-paid. This is due in large part to a lack of industrial militancy. But a change is sweeping through the industry. Over the past two years, retail workers have taken industrial action at bookstores Better Read Than Dead and Readings, and even gone on strike nationally at Apple stores.
Now this new phase of union action is set to hit Australia’s supermarket duopoly. Coles and Woolworths together dominate roughly 70 per cent of the market.
Coles’ and Woolworths’ profits for the last financial year were $1.1 and $1.6 billion, respectively. But its employees are some of the lowest paid people in the country, and must now spend over 81 per cent of their income on rent if they want to live in a capital city in Australia. Supermarket workers were praised as “essential” during the pandemic, but in practice were often treated as punching bags.
The dire wages and conditions at Australian supermarkets are at odds with their high union density rates. Both companies have sweetheart deals with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), with whom they collude to keep wages low. Challenging this rotten status quo is the member-led RAFFWU which is at the forefront of the historic recent strike wave.
Retail workers need the support of the entire community in the face of employer attacks. You can support RAFFWU’s Strike Fund which supports members engaging in action at chuffed.org/project/superstrike