‘No room to move’: Grocers refuse to renew multi-employer deals

Independent supermarket retailers are set to end their long practice of multi-employer agreements because the test for approving the deals is too strict to allow the flexibilities they want.

Master Grocers Association has been consulting dozens of IGA and Foodland stores on whether they want to terminate expired multi-employer agreements that deliver flexibility on penalty rates and part-time rosters, and instead revert to the award.

Master Grocers Association chief Jos de Bruin says the current workplace system is “too complex” to renew multi-employer agreements. James Alcock

Last week, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) successfully applied to the Fair Work Commission to terminate its 2005 multi-employer agreement with the MGA, 14 years after it expired, and is moving to end another 2014 multi-employer agreement, as it argues it leaves workers worse off than the award minimum.

The agreements originally covered up to 160 stores at the time of approval, but that figure has fallen to about 25 as businesses closed or changed hands.

MGA chief executive Jos de Bruin said “there is no sense of renewing the agreement because we can’t negotiate over the better off overall test”.

“Our members have said, for the sake of simplicity, let’s go to the award,” he said. “We have had conversations [to renew it] but there’s no advantage at all … It’s [the BOOT] totally inflexible, too complex. There’s no room to move. It just not worth the trouble.”

The 2014 agreement with the SDA is the last remaining multi-employer agreement for the MGA.

‘Union movement needs to take a step back’

The deal removed Saturday penalty rates for permanent staff in return for a higher base rate while part-time workers could agree to change their rosters without two weeks’ notice and get paid overtime if they worked more than 32 hours a week.

Mr de Bruin said many members would like to stay on the agreement, but argued “the union movement needs to take a step back for us to take two steps forward”.

“The unions in our view have no idea about the real world, about how small businesses operate and how families scrimp and save and scratch around to maintain tight margins to compete with the big chains.”

Retailers’ push away from multi-enterprise deals comes as the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, of which the MGA is a member, reached a memorandum of understanding with the Australian Council of Trade Unions last month to simplify the BOOT and improve small businesses’ access to multi-employer agreements.

However, business is worried that the MoU will be used by the Albanese government to sanction compulsory sector-wide or industry-wide deals.

SDA national secretary Gerard Dwyer said the MGA’s comments about the BOOT being too strict “should be assessed in the context that it was the MGA which submitted a zero per cent increase to award wages in this year’s wage case while the cost of living has skyrocketed for working Australians”.

“The BOOT must continue to be a fair and proper test to ensure workers are able to benefit from bargaining along with the business they work for,” he said.

“Multi-employer bargaining is a feature of many overseas systems, and it works.”

In its ruling terminating the 2005 agreement last week, the Fair Work Commission said the deal used to cover slightly fewer than 100 employers but now covered only 17.

The SDA argued the workers’ pay and conditions under the expired agreement had fallen below the award minimum. The termination will take effect on October 7.


Extracted from AFR

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