Striking warehouse workers at Chemist Warehouse are returning to work in Victoria and Queensland after a 16-day strike that won significant improvements for the casualised, low paid workforce.
Among the highlights of the settlement are:
– Labour hire casuals convert to permanent employment after six months -- welcome relief for the workers who have spent several years as casuals in Chemist Warehouse distribution centres.
– Immediate conversion to permanent work, for the dozens of labour hire casual workers who defied management intimidation to join the strike.
– A pay rise of more than 8 percent in the first year of the agreement (18.75 percent over the four-year agreement).
– Mandatory training for managers to stamp out sexual harassment – the first time management have been forced to recognise the problem.
– Union rights in the agreement for the first time.
The Chemist Warehouse strikers are heroes. A solid strike and picket at Somerton, the defiance of small numbers of determined strikers at Preston and the strike at Eagle Farm have forced important concessions out of two of the richest people in the country. The strike is confirmation of the power that working class people have – if we strike and picket – to win respect, dignity and decent conditions for ourselves and those that come after us.
The reports below were written in the final days of the strike. We'll be writing more in coming days. More details on the terms of settlement are available on the National Union of Workers Facebook page.
National Union of Workers (NUW) members at Chemist Warehouse distribution centres in Melbourne and Brisbane supply stock to Chemist Warehouse stores all over the country, as well as processing and sending out online sales.
“What the public don’t know about Chemist Warehouse is that a lot of women there are sexually harassed,” said Husain Al-Qatari, a lead delegate at the Preston site in Victoria. “They do not provide a safe working environment, free from sexual harassment and bullying. The wages here are 25 percent lower than the industry standard. 75 percent of workers are labour hire workers. We are standing here trying to win secure jobs for all the casuals.”
The strikers are after significant improvements in wages and conditions, including a pay rise of over 25 percent (to $30 per hour) and a minimum of 75 percent of all employees to be made permanent. The workers are also demanding an end to the rampant bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment of workers by managers.
The strikers have stood fast in the face of intense pressure from the company. The first day of the strike in Somerton, managers attempted to corral agency casuals past striking workers, and a couple of big trucks attempted to push through. Both were unsuccessful thanks to protesting workers.
A couple of days later a small crew of striking workers, union organisers and activists at Preston were vastly outnumbered as management mobilised their entire office staff to physically protect scabs; laughing and cheering as they loaded boxes into vans on the street. Security guards were hired to roam the picket line, threatening and intimidating workers.
It’s a testament to the strikers that they have stood so strong against such obnoxious behaviour on the part of the company.
Although strikers at Preston have been unable to win the bulk of the casuals to supporting the strike, very few trucks have got through. This has limited the amount of stock that can be moved. The strike is solid among full time staff at Eagle Farm in Queensland, the smallest of the sheds, though scabs and delivery trucks have more or less free access to the site.
Somerton remains the strongest shed and the centre of the dispute. Even with limited numbers, virtually no trucks or workers have entered or left the warehouse for two weeks.
This is having an impact. Significant gaps have appeared on store shelves across the Victoria. Although the company is importing some stock from NSW, they have yet to successfully get around the disruption caused by the shutdown of the largest and most important warehouse.
It was never going to be easy to win against a company that is known for its ruthlessness and hostility to dealing with the union. The vast majority of workers are casuals employed by third-party labour-hire companies, and the majority of them, especially at Preston, are not union members.
Nevertheless, union activists across all three sites remain determined to see it through.
“A lot of the casuals were scared to join the union go out on strike,” said Dave Hiah, a casual delegate at Somerton, as he addressed union members and supporters at a public rally in front of the Preston site. “But the full timers and the casuals [at Somerton] are sticking together now and we’ve got everyone out.”
“From day one of this strike we’ve seen a lot of support from other unions and from the socialists,” Husain from the Preston site told Red Flag. “We thank you for the support. The strike has brought the workers closer together. They feel that they are family and really united.”
Those who attended the rally in Preston braved the sour smell of manure as management ensured that the fertilisation of the public nature strip (a rare event) occurred on the same day. Unfazed, Husain drew cheers and applause when he told the crowd:
“The shelves are starting to get empty. We don’t mind standing here on the grass and fighting for our rights. We are not going to give up. It doesn’t matter how many days it takes. We are going to fight!”
An evil empire
The owners of Chemist Warehouse, Jack Gance and Mario Verrocchi, have become the dominant players in Australian pharmacy retail.
Taking into account their other holdings, including the My Chemist chain, their empire consists of 400 stores nationwide, employs 8,000 staff, takes in around $3 billion in annual revenue and controls more than 25 percent of the retail pharmacy market.
The point of this empire is the same as any other – to make its emperors fabulously wealthy.
In the 2017-8 financial year alone, Gance and Verrocchi increased their combined wealth by $500 million, or 47 percent. Their current net worth – $1.62 billion – has earnt them a place on the Australian Financial Review’s 100 richest people in Australia list.
These modern-day emperors built their mountain of gold off the backs of underpaid workers at all levels of the industry.
In 2015 the pharmacists’ association, Professionals Australia, found that Chemist Warehouse paid its pharmacists at least $5 per hour less than the industry average. The union also found that Chemist Warehouse pharmacists are expected to fill upwards of 300 prescriptions per day, or nearly double the industry recommendation of 150 to 200 prescriptions per day.
A 2016 investigation into unpaid training by the Fair Work Ombudsman found that Chemist Warehouse had underpaid 6,000 of its retail employees by at least $3.5 million.
The situation is no better in the company’s warehouses. Workers there endure heavy workloads, insecure employment and wage rates 25 percent below the industry standard.
A $5 per hour wage increase for all the company’s warehouse workers would only cost $6 million annually – a drop in the ocean for Gance and Verrocchi.
But that sort of decency doesn’t build empires.
Profile of a delegate
Husain Al-Qatari, the lead delegate at the Preston Chemist Warehouse distribution centre, has been a crucial leader of the strike. He’s one of many migrant workers on the picket, many of whom bring radical political traditions from around the world into the National Union of Workers.
He came to Australia in 2005 to study commerce at Monash College and Deakin University. He then returned to Bahrain in March 2011 to participate in the democratic revolution that swept through his home country as part of the Arab Spring.
He spoke to Red Flag about his experiences and how they shaped him as a National Union of Workers delegate and activist.
Why did the people of your country rise up in 2011?
They had enough of the racism and discrimination between Sunnis and Shia. The Sunni minority is ruling the country. The government only employs the royal family and Sunnis in high positions and oppresses the Shia majority. People have university degrees and they have to wash cars on the road to make a living. We don’t think about different races or genders or religions, we believed in equality. We just wanted more rights.
What was it like when you went back to Bahrain?
Everyone was inspired and became more confident because of the revolution. But I had to return to Australia after three months. They used thugs to target the protesters. The father of my high school friend went missing. They eventually found him dead. The government was targeting people for their religion as well as anyone who participated in the revolution. My father was threatened too. He’s from the opposition.
What did you learn from your experience there?
It taught me that you have to fight for the people. When you see people getting targeted because they want to fight for a better life, it just makes you want to fight harder. When you see the mistreatment of people by the government, or by big companies or anyone else, you have to stand up and say that’s not acceptable.