Warehouse safety wars

Bosses in the supermarket warehousing industry are on the attack. “Woolworths are certainly going hard right across the nation, targeting all the sites. Trying to make that few extra dollars”, said Ron Marx, who worked at the company’s Barnawartha distribution centre (DC) near Wodonga until he was sacked in February.

Ron was a union delegate and health and safety representative. He had worked in the warehouse for nine years. “I’ve been a pain in their side for a long time, so they’ve wanted to get rid of me for ages and they've tried a few times”, he told Red Flag. Ron was sacked after raising a workplace safety issue with Woolworths managers. He says the company has been ignoring a Worksafe direction that workers not stack pallets above shoulder height. Worksafe has advised that working above shoulder height is an injury risk.

Ron says that pallet heights are “out of control” at the Barnawartha DC. “They actually gagged us”, he said. Management told workers that they weren’t allowed to talk about the issue because a case about it was being heard at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. When Ron rang Worksafe, he found out that this was a lie.

According to Ron, the company is deliberately eroding safety standards. “Woolworths made the statement that safety is one of the core values of our business. I nearly choked on that!”

He says that the bosses are targeting some to intimidate the rest. “They’re just trying to scare everyone into being like sheep”, he said. “There’s a lot of people who’ve said to delegates they don't want to raise any safety issues because of what happened to me.”

While workers wreck their bodies, Woolworths rakes in the profits – $2.45 billion in 2014. “To me, safety costs money, and they're taking shortcuts through it”, he said. “We’re going back a hundred years. They just want us all to be slaves … Everyone talks about sweatshops in Malaysia and China, but the truth is it happens here too. There’s no difference.”

Pressuring workers to meet high “pick rates” – a measure of how quickly a worker loads goods on a pallet – is another way for companies to maximise profits. Warehouse managers often say that “no one is pressured for performance”, but out on the floor it’s always a different story. Casual workers are pressured to pick at 100 percent, in other words total compliance with the nominated pick rate, or face the sack. Now, long time permanent workers are also being targeted.

“A lot of the newbies, they come in and they end up injured because they push ’em so hard”, Ron explained. “They treat you like kids. They stand over you and try to push you as hard as they can.” If that doesn’t work, he says that the company will sack a few workers to “get people moving again”.

In early February, Matthew Kors was stood down by management at the Woolworths’ Melbourne liquor distribution centre in Laverton. He wasn’t meeting the pick rate. He was sacked a few days later. A few weeks after that, management issued a notice telling workers that the average work rate in the warehouse had jumped. They would be rewarded with a barbeque. The rate of injury spiked, with workers at the Laverton DC reporting that 30 out of 400 workers are injured.

Across the Woolworths distribution network, workers’ injuries go unrecorded as a matter of course. Many haven’t seen a doctor even weeks after their injury because they’re afraid of being targeted.

As a result of this kind of treatment at Barnawartha, there is an intense dislike of the managers there. Ron related an example from the last enterprise agreement campaign. “I had a group of 25 people come up to me. They asked me a question. They said, ‘Ron, can we make one of our claims that we’ll forgo a pay rise for the next two years as long as they sack all the managers in the place?’”

Ron described how he feels about the people behind his sacking: “At least I know when I go to bed at night I can sleep properly. Not like some of the managers; they look in the mirror and they don't like what they see. They sell their souls.”

Linfox, which runs a DC for Coles in Truganina in Melbourne’s outer west, is also on the offensive. Its tactics are the same but employed on a larger scale. In the last year, Coles/Linfox has effectively sacked about 100 workers.

The story was recently reported in the Age, which spoke with one affected worker, John Russell. He had worked for Linfox for 37 years. After a bit of time off because of a shoulder injury he sustained at work, he was deemed fit to return. Before he got back in, he was stood down by the company. Its doctor claimed he was unable to use a hand-held scanning device.

This is despite his own doctor saying he could work at the DC, where there is a range of other jobs that he could be assigned. According to the National Union of Workers, this is part of a policy to get rid of older permanent workers who can be replaced with younger casuals. Linfox admits that the policy is part of a plan to boost productivity in its warehouse. While Linfox bullies its workers until their bodies break, the company has made a complaint about “union intimidation” because organisers have leafleted workers in the car park.

 The NUW has organised a number of serious strikes in supermarket warehouses in the last few years – the Woolworths Hume DC in October 2010, Coles in Somerton in July 2012 and Barnawartha Woolworths in October 2013. Now, the clear pattern of attacks from the bosses poses an obvious challenge – the need for a concerted industrial response outside of EBA negotiating periods.

Ron said that Woolworths management is afraid of the potential of a snap response from workers. “One of these days they’ll turn around, walk out the door for four hours and say ‘Improve it.’” 

Read more
A revolution in Australia?
Ben Hillier

Revolutions happen only in places with repressive regimes and extreme poverty. They don’t happen in economically advanced, democratic countries like Australia. Most people think this. But is it right? Recent history might seem to suggest so—social revolutions are practically unheard of in the West. There are, however, a number of reasons why revolution in Australia is possible.

Vote Victorians Socialists

The billionaires have had it too good for too long. CEO salaries are up more than 40 percent in a year, while living standards for everyone else are getting smashed. Decade after decade, under both major parties, the rich have gotten richer while everyone else struggles. And the politicians run Victoria like it’s their own private cash machine. 

Women’s oppression and capitalism
Women’s oppression and capitalism
Diane Fieldes

Women’s oppression looks quite different today than 60 years ago. Women’s rights are more accepted now, women are a bigger part of the workforce, contraception and abortion are legal in much of the world. There are more women world leaders and CEOs than ever before. At the same time, the vast majority of women, even in a wealthy country like Australia, are still paid less on average than men, still do most of the unpaid child care and other domestic labour in the home and still have to contend with demeaning sexist stereotypes.

Greek resistance in WWII: from triumph to defeat 
Greek resistance in WWII
Tom Bramble

Imperialist occupation has always generated resistance. Time and again, oppressed people have risen up heroically to drive out occupying armies. But heroism isn’t always enough: the politics of the resistance frequently make the difference between victory and defeat. 

WA public sector workers fight back
Nick Everett

Western Australian public sector workers will rally at the state parliament on 17 August to demand that wages keep up with the cost of living. The rally, organised by the Public Sector Alliance of nine trade unions, follows several stop-work rallies held at WA hospitals over the last month, involving thousands of health workers.

Labor’s climate bill is a disaster
Jerome Small

The whole country is talking about Labor’s Climate Change Bill. But there’s nothing there.