Woolworths workers locked out in bid for wage parity

The Wyong picket line of locked out Woolworths workers. Photo: Kathy Fairfax

More than 500 workers at the Woolworths Distribution Centre at Wyong have been locked out after demanding pay parity with workers doing the same job for the same company less than two hours away.

Workers at Wyong on the New South Wales Central Coast are paid between 8% and 16% less than their Sydney counterparts.

They are also calling for an end to Woolworths’ unsafe pick rates (the number of items a worker is expected to move every hour) and for a ratio of 80% permanent to 20% casual staff.

The workers are members of the United Workers Union (UWU) and have been maintaining a picket outside the distribution centre since July 24.

In March, the workers voted in favour by 87.4% of taking protected action for their claim and informed the company on July 20 of their intention to take strike action. Negotiations over the next three days failed as the company refused to agree to an acceptable offer, announcing an indefinate lockout on July 24.

Robert Quick, a UWU delegate who has worked at the centre for 14 years, told Green Left this was the first time industrial action had been taken over an enterprise agreement. “The issue is equality,” he said. “We want parity with Sydney. We work for the same company but get $5 an hour less for doing exactly the same job.

“We have been told that because we live on the Central Coast we cannot expect to get Sydney wages. It’s just not right. Our mortgages, rates, food and petrol prices are only minimally different from Sydney, if at all.

“We’ve had a lot of support from other unions, including the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Maritime Union of Australia, the Electrical Trades Union and the metal workers, for which we are very grateful. We’ve had organisers from our own union from various sites and divisions within the union come here to support us.

“We were here during the huge storm on Sunday, when we got 150 mm of rain and lost three gazeebos in the wind. And we’ve had members of the public coming here and dropping off food parcels, drinks, extra gazeebos and asking us what we need to continue the good fight.

“It’s clear that a lot of unions and members of the public are thinking it’s about time someone spoke up for the Central Coast workers who are getting less money just because of where they live.

“We’ve worked through the bushfires, the recent floods and now the pandemic. The company has made a lot of money from the panic-buying and is spending $1 billion on automating their Sydney distribution centres — that will cost about 1500 jobs.”

Revenue for Woolworths supermarkets has grown by 8.6% for the six months to June and is up 10.7% in the previous quarter.

Mia Dabelstein, a UWU organiser, told Green Left: “It shouldn’t be legal for workers for the same company doing the same job to be paid different amounts. It’s not right that a company can build a new warehouse in a different area and employ workers on a lower wage.

“Now the workers have been locked out indefinitely, Woolworths is using the Sydney distribution centres to stock the supermarkets on the Central Coast. The company is using its COVID-19 contingency plan, which it had to have in case there was an outbreak, to shut the warehouse. The plan gives them the capacity to lock out the workers, but not disrupt the supply chain.

“The workers are still strong on this picket after nine days and nights and have received incredible support from unions, politicians and the public. Woolworths are pulling out all their dirty tricks, which means they are scared.”

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