Warehouse workers strike at pharmacy giant

Chemist Warehouse will be rocked by strikes the week of 11 March as hundreds of workers in Melbourne and Brisbane prepare to take industrial action for the first time. Members of the National Union of Workers (NUW), the union that covers warehouses in Victoria and Queensland, are fighting for a new agreement that they hope will redress widespread grievances.

 “We work hard: we deserve more money”, one Chemist Warehouse worker told Red Flag at a picnic organised by the union a week before the planned strike. Order pickers at the Preston and Somerton sites (both in Melbourne’s north) earn just $24.35 per hour – well below the industry standard.

Meanwhile, the owners of the Chemist Warehouse chain, Jack Gance and Mario Verrocchi, reported a combined wealth of $1.6 billion last year – up from $1.1 billion the year before. 

According to IBISWorld, the My Chemist Retail Group, which encompasses the Chemist Warehouse and My Chemist chains, is Australia’s largest pharmacy retailer. It commands more than 25 percent of the total market by revenue. 

This empire was built by manoeuvring around industry regulations that limit ownership of pharmacies to individual pharmacists. Chemist Warehouse has set up a network of franchises that are legally independent but in reality controlled by the company. In this way it’s created economies of scale, driven down wages and cut costs in order to maximise profits.  

The entire corporate structure hinges on the labour of hundreds of workers at the large distribution centres that supply stock to stores and online customers. 

These workers are not only low paid; they also lack job security. “Casuals often get a message at 9 or 10pm saying they are on stand-by for the next day”, a casual worker from the Somerton shed says, “meaning you have to be ready to go to work if you’re called in. So you can be sitting there waiting for a phone call to go to work, and no phone call comes through. We just don’t ever know where we stand”.

Roughly 140 workers have permanent jobs in the Melbourne warehouses. Another 230 to 400 (depending on the season) are employed casually through third-party labour-hire companies. They can be offered 15 to 20 hours of work per week, or sometimes less.

“They’re playing around with the casuals’ lives”, the worker continued. “People have got rent or house payments, or they might have a sick kid and they don’t know when their next shift is going to be.”

“This is some of the worst culture and treatment of workers that I’ve seen as an organiser at any site”, Jenna Christie, the union organiser for the Melbourne warehouses, told Red Flag. “People are pushed hard to meet KPIs [key performance indicators] and so on. Ten hours of work at Chemist Warehouse really equate physically to 12 or 14 hours at other sheds.”

The lack of job security combined with unfettered managerial control has led to widespread abuse, according to the workers.  

“These warehouses are in really low SES [socioeconomic status] areas”, said Jenna. “Jobs in the north [of Melbourne] are few and far between. If there is a casual worker who is trying to get shifts, they are obviously going to work harder. If a labour hire worker doesn’t meet productivity targets, they can be screamed at and subjected to abuse, or they can be told that they are not required any more.”

Additionally, several complaints have been made to the Fair Work Commission regarding sexual harassment from Chemist Warehouse managers. A number of workers allege that a manager offered shifts to casual women workers in exchange for sex.

“They’ve got a well-oiled machine for dealing with any complaints from workers”, said Jenna, referring to the way the company intimidates workers who make these sorts of allegations. “A lot of migrant women and labour hire women are terrified to speak out. They’ve seen it happen before, and they know that nothing was done about it.”

The year-long campaign for a new agreement has inspired more workers to join the union.  The NUW, which covered only 10 percent of Chemist Warehouse warehouse workers in Melbourne a year ago, now claims to have recruited over three-quarters of permanent employees at the Melbourne site, along with a significant minority of the agency casuals at Preston and nearly half of the agency casuals at Somerton. 

“These guys never fail to astonish me”, said Jenna. “The campaign is really worker-led. Our activists have been having conversations with their workmates, talking about the conditions and their horrific experiences. People see the enterprise agreement expiry as an opportunity for change.”

According to the union, sites are pursuing different claims, but the general campaign is for industry standard wages, secure jobs and a stop to management abuse. 

Union members have put together an ambitious log of claims that includes a substantial pay rise to lift wages to $30 per hour, at least 75 percent of workers to be made permanent and site rates to apply to all labour-hire workers. 

“Every three years you get your opportunity”, explains Husain Alqatari, a lead union delegate at the Preston site. “This opportunity is coming to us [the workers] and we have to take action to fix the conditions. We are not going to back down, we are not going to stop until we achieve our goals and win.”

While addressing his workmates at the union picnic, Husain argued, “This fight is for all the workers. It doesn’t matter if you are permanent or a casual. Managers are trying to scare you by saying that you will lose money, and that it’s not worth it. But the workers think that it’s the chance they have to shape their future and their family’s future.

“The company has the resources and the money, but we have the workers.”

Pickets will be running 24 hours a day at Chemist Warehouse locations in Melbourne and Brisbane from 4am on Tuesday 12 March. Supporters are encouraged to attend. Locations details are: 

MELBOURNE

Somerton: 51 Fillo Drive  

Preston: 44 Raglan Street 

BRISBANE

Eagle Farm: 41 Tradecoast Drive