‘We need to worry about our own lives’: Melbourne warehouse workers walk out for safety
‘We need to worry about our own lives’: Melbourne warehouse workers walk out for safety
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“It goes to show what team members as a union, collectively, what they want. And they showed it today, standing up for their safety and for other people’s safety ... I think they did a really good job staying strong, and that’s what we need – we need to enforce these things, so that companies know we’re not playing. We need to worry about our own lives.”

– Viv, Coles Laverton Chilled Distribution Centre worker

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Workers at a giant Coles distribution centre in Melbourne showed a great example to workers everywhere on Friday – stopping work for six hours over management negligence on health and safety.

Workers at the centre told Red Flag about a culture of production at all costs. Relentless pressure to hit production targets means workers reaching over each other to grab boxes – there is no “social distancing”. Alcohol wipes to wipe down machinery are given out grudgingly, and there is no hand sanitiser. Workers also want temperature checks for all workers each day, and two weeks of paid pandemic leave for anyone who needs it.

Workers are also concerned that any infection in the warehouse could spread to the wider community through the products they handle – boxes of fresh produce and chilled goods.    

Coles made $1.43 billion in profit last year, and payed chief executive Steven Cain a salary of $5.4 million. Supermarkets have enjoyed record sales, significantly above the Christmas peak, over the past few weeks. As the operators of a vast logistics network, Coles should be able to source supplies of basic safety necessities easier than pretty much any other company in the country.

Yet workers have to fight for the most basic sanitation measures according to Viv, a long-term worker in the shed, such as sanitisers, masks and wipes. “There’s hundreds of people in there who use the equipment, it has to be wiped down”, she said. “We just want to keep that safety net in the workplace safe for ourselves, for our families and for everyone in Australia.”

Workers returned to work around 11am with assurances from Coles on sanitiser and enforcement of social distancing, while discussions will continue about pandemic leave. It certainly wasn’t a total victory, but Coles workers should hold their heads up for showing us what every worker should be doing – refusing to work in unsafe conditions.

The shed has a history of industrial action, with an impressive three-day strike in 2016 winning significant gains. Since then, management has pushed back. Workers told Red Flag that management uses pressure and promises to push workers and elected health and safety representatives to allow production at all costs.

Amid this extraordinary crisis, the overall picture of the union movement in Australia is bleak. So seeing a big group of workers refusing to work until their concerns are taken seriously is a sight for sore eyes. Later on Friday afternoon, media reported a walkout at an overcrowded call centre in Queensland.

Every worker in Australia has the legal right to stop work if faced with a serious and imminent risk to health and safety. With politicians and employers pushing for some version “business as usual” and maximum profit, more workers need to get organised and follow this example: If it’s not safe – shut it down!

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