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Can there be unity in a ‘hellscape’? Australian unions unite against Amazon

By Portner Press on January 7th, 2019
  1. Industrial Instruments
  2. Fair Work Act

 

Two major Australian unions, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) and the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) have joined forces to create the Online Retail & Delivery Workers Alliance.

The alliance follows the dismissal of an Amazon forklift driver at its Sydney fulfilment centre, who was allegedly sacked for joining the SDA union and requesting more work hours.

The worker, who was employed through labour hire company Adecco, has filed a general protections case in the Fair Work Commission, claiming he was unlawfully dismissed.

Bernie Smith, New South Wales Secretary of the SDA said “We are not going to accept the sacking of a worker, who joined the union, who just wants to work enough hours to support his family.”

Mr Smith said the union had “serious concerns” about Amazon’s operations, from what they had heard about its operations abroad.

“We’ve seen shocking examples of workers in online retailers overseas being subjected to appalling working conditions. We can’t afford to let that happen in Australia,” he said.

In September last year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on harsh working conditions at Amazon’s Melbourne warehouse, which one worker described as a “hellscape”.

TWU’s National Secretary Michael Kaine said “We will not tolerate the downgrading of jobs in Australia by Amazon. The company has an atrocious record on working conditions around the world, impoverishing working families and forcing them to seek government assistance through food stamps and medical help.”

A spokesperson for Amazon claimed that the allegations made by the SDA were “untrue and sensationalist”.

An Adecco spokesperson said that “Adecco respects our workers’ rights to freedom of association, and the exercise of such rights. In no circumstances would Adecco take action against our workers for exercising these rights.”

Adecco has a contract to supply Amazon with its casual warehouse workers, both in Australia and globally.

In Australia, Amazon employees who work through Adecco receive significantly lower pay rates than other workers in nearby warehouses who are on collective agreements.

Last year, a leaked training video from a US subsidiary of Amazon, Whole Foods, showed instructions managers were given to identify potential union activity.

According to the video, “warning signs” that indicated “associate” (employee) “disengagement, vulnerability to organising, or early organising activity” included workers using words like “living wage”, and workers “who normally aren’t connected to each other suddenly hanging out together”, as well as “unusual interest in policies, benefits, employee lists, or other company information” and “associate behaviour that is out of character”.

The video demonstrated how managers could talk to workers about union activity, making statements like: “You would never threaten to close your building just because associates joined a union. But you might need to talk about how having a union could hurt innovation which could hurt customer obsession which could ultimately threaten the building’s continued existence.”

In the upcoming Fair Work Commission case, it is alleged that the employee, who was the first to join a union at the Sydney centre, was told not to wear a union cap and lanyard while at work. It is also alleged that Adecco managers objected to the distribution of union leaflets by union organisers.

The worker says he then got into a dispute with Adecco after repeatedly asking for more hours.

On 5 October last year, he met with an SDA union official, while an Adecco manager was present. Adecco then dismissed him four days later, on 9 October.

The worker claims that Adecco was happy with his work and the dismissal was motivated by his union activity. He said “It is unfair treatment just because I’m in the union.”

“I need to pay the bills … so I need a job, without a job you can’t survive,” he said.

It is unlawful for employers to take adverse action against employees for an industrial activity, such as union membership.

A preliminary hearing at the Fair Work Commission on 29 November last year didn’t resolve the dispute.

The case is likely to be heard before a federal court this year.

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