Striking Yakult workers win wage rise

At their factory in South Dandenong, the Yakult workers’ protest was a sight for sore eyes. A solid picket that turns around trucks and stops others from leaving the site is a rare thing in Australia today. 

The Yakult workers’ strike was protected action, but because of the state of industrial laws in Australia, an effective picket is generally unlawful. This didn’t faze the Yakult workers, who maintained their protest for 10 days under the constant glare of Victoria Police.  

The National Union of Workers members were on strike for a 3 percent pay increase and rostered days off. Their demand had climbed from an earlier claim of 2.5 percent a year. After management rejected their original demand, the workers unanimously voted to strike and ask for more. 

A couple of years ago, it was a different story at the Yakult factory. In 2016, a ballot to authorise strike action didn’t get up. Management have learned that a lot can change in two years. 

“We’re fighting for our rights, and to show them that they can’t push us around any more”, one striker told Red Flag. “We’re showing them what a union is for; the union gives us our voice”, said another.   

The Yakult workforce is composed of migrants from around the globe. Red Flag spoke to workers born in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Some reported being told by the company that they would be sacked if they joined the union. Another tactic the company employs to undermine collectivity on the factory floor is to single out some people for pay rises. 

The company’s attempts to divide them were one of the workers’ main concerns. One striker explains the significance: “This is why we came out: we’re all the same, and we’re all workers. We want a collective pay rise”. Management’s tactics fooled none on the picket line. “We all do the same job, we’re all the same, why pay us differently? Because they don’t like unions.” 

It was this commitment to sticking together and standing up to management that won the Yakult workers all of their demands. While everyone from the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions to the governor of the Reserve Bank laments wage stagnation, a small group of factory workers in Melbourne has shown exactly what it will take for workers to get back on the front foot.