Warehouse worker unions are opposing a push by Woolworths for sector-wide changes that would ensure staff at new online fulfilment centres are paid like supermarket workers.
Woolworths has applied to vary the retail award so that it covers staff at its e-stores and online fulfilment centres and has declared it has the backing of Coles and the dominant retail union, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association.
However, the United Workers Union, which covers some distribution centres for the big retailers, has flagged its opposition over concerns the changes could extend to other warehouse workers and cut pay or conditions.
The clash could shape the future of retail, as most retailers expect their stores to evolve into online fulfilment centres rather than customer service centres.
A Woolworths spokesman said it had told the Fair Work Commission it was merely seeking to confirm the award’s coverage and make express what already occurs in practice.
“We’ve applied to the FWC to vary the general retail industry award to remove any doubt that it covers team members working in the general retail industry in online retail customer sales fulfilment facilities,” he said.
The retailer argued in its application that online sales had increased in food retailing and that sometimes specialist facilities rather than supermarkets fulfilled those orders.
No customers involved
These fulfilment facilities, it argued, had similar layouts to a supermarket, with items placed on shelves and in rows, and involved “virtually the same” skills such as stocking shelves, picking orders and assembling deliveries – just with no customers.
A UWU spokeswoman said Woolworth’s description was “nonsense”.
“They are warehouses. There is no customer element to it,” she said.
She said the union was concerned the variation could potentially extend to retail distribution centres and “there are definitely some provisions [in the retail award] that are worse [penalty rates, rosters] – in some cases marginally”.
“We are still in the process of reviewing this properly,” she said.
“It’s a question of conditions and whether all warehouse workers get the same conditions, or if you create separate tiers for warehouse workers.”
The TWU, which also covers some distribution centre workers, flagged its initial opposition but indicated it would engage with the SDA and retailers ahead of the next conference on February 27.
“In Australia, the award system evolves as workplaces evolve,” a TWU spokesman said.
“As usual procedure the TWU has lodged an application in these proceedings and will work constructively with the FWC and union colleagues to achieve a fair outcome.”
The SDA, part of the Labor Right with the TWU, also covers some warehouse workers but divides its coverage by state with union rival, the left-wing UWU.
SDA national secretary Gerard Dwyer said that “as always, the SDA is working constructively with the FWC, our union colleagues and all other parties to achieve the most beneficial outcome for all workers involved”.
Woolworths operates seven customer fulfilment centres for online sales across the country, including four in NSW. However, none is open to the public.
The centre employees, who the retailer calls “online personal shoppers”, included some who were previously supermarket staff.
Extracted from AFR