Woolworths’ decision that all new employees at its Melbourne Liquor Distribution Centre (MLDC) will be labour hire casuals has sparked an indefinite strike.
During the last round of enterprise bargaining negotiations, Woolworths pushed for the workers to accept labour hire on site, but withdrew the clause allowing labour hire after resistance from the workers. Woolworths’ latest actions breach the verbal agreement it gave to the National Union of Workers (NUW) during those negotiations.
Currently, all employees, including casuals, are directly employed by Woolworths with opportunities for casual workers to apply to become permanent each year.
Workers finally walked off the job at 4am on August 10 after getting nowhere in negotiations with management. This followed four consultation mass meetings organised by the NUW in the warehouse carpark on August 9.
There are around 480 workers on the site, with only 15-30 workers having scabbed. So far, no trucks have breached the picket line. The picket has been well attended by workers, with non-union workers also joining the strike and the picket line.
Workers on the picket line told Green Left Weekly that a nearby warehouse introduced labour hire so that now, the permanent workforce is tiny.
One worker told Green Left Weekly there are a lot of injuries at the MLDC because workers have to pick heavy boxes of alcohol. He said that the experienced workers know that you need to pick at a safe speed to limit injuries but the labour hire workers are likely to be intimidated by managers to pick boxes faster and without using safe lifting procedures.
Another worker has been a casual at the warehouse for five years. He said that he couldn’t understand why Woolworths wanted to bring in labour hire when there are long-term casuals like him who need more hours and more days of work. This worker had applied to be made permanent on three occasions but had never been accepted.
One reason for Woolworths’ determination to introduce labour hire is to increase competition for shifts and to increase divisions between different workers in the shed.
The Fair Work Commission issued orders for the workers to return to work on August 11. A mass meeting of workers at the site voted to defy the return to work order.
At the same time as Woolworths is attacking the MLDC workers with labour hire, it is planning to close down its Hume distribution centre with the loss of 680 jobs and it is in the process of retrenching 1000 butchers from its stores and pressuring apprentice butchers to agree to a “fast-track” apprenticeship.
There is a pattern of behaviour of Woolworths. “Woolworths are bullies” is an accurate description.
All photos by Kieran Bennett