Federal election 2016: shoppies wedge Shorten on penalties


Elizabeth Colman

Industrial correspondent

Jared Owens


Bill Shorten is facing pressure from small business to denounce the nation’s biggest union over “treachery” in its treatment of thousands of low-paid workers, challenging the Opposition Leader to rebuke one of his key allies in the midst of an election campaign.

As Labor places penalty rates at the heart of its bid for government, Mr Shorten’s office last night criticised the deal struck by the shopworkers’ union that deprived Coles workers of as much as $100 million in penalties.

The deal, which was overruled this week by the Fair Work Commission, provided higher base pay and was endorsed by a majority vote of Coles employees, most of whom work regular hours and belong to the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association.

ALP national secretary George Wright said the party would continue accepting campaign contributions from the SDA, which has given more than $1.14m since 2010.

Mr Shorten’s spokesman last night said the Coles deal should never have been approved.

“The independent Fair Work Commission has done its job by reviewing the agreement. It’s now clear it shouldn’t have been ticked off in the first place,” he said.

Council of Small Business of Australia chief executive Peter Strong called on the ACTU to expel the SDA over its “proven treachery”.

“The SDA still has on its website a call to arms for people to fight against lower penalty rates, while they have up to 100 agreements with the biggest businesses in ­Australia to actually have lower penalty rates, and in some situ­ations remove them altogether,” he said.

“The hypocrisy and duplicity of the SDA is breathtaking.”

Mr Strong called on the ALP to admit small business had been disadvantaged by this campaign, while big business had benefited. “In the end, the only businesses that paid double time on a Sunday were small businesses. All the big businesses had a deal with the SDA that paid under-award rates.”

ACTU secretary Dave Oliver and president Ged Kearney did not respond to questions about whether they should suspend the SDA. The SDA did not comment.

Former SDA official Nick Champion, now a Labor frontbencher, said aggrieved small businesses could negotiate on penalty rates but were reluctant to pay higher wages. “The Coles agreement provided $102 a week above the award rate for a fulltime employee, and Coles have very high levels of permanency in their workforce,” he said.

“(The commission) said that in a small number of cases where there might be a small number of deficiencies, the parties should correct that small number of deficiencies.”

Former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Allan Fels said the workers were victims of “exploitation”, albeit on a lesser scale than the underpayment of 7-­Eleven workers. “The focus on 7-Eleven … (was) largely on exploited migrant workers, but this shows that even with union membership, there is some exploitation of these workers,” Dr Fels said.

The FWC full bench ruled the deal failed the “better off overall test”. Coles has until June 10 to say it will lift wages. If it does nothing, workers would revert to a 2011 enterprise agreement that also paid below-award rates.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson said employers and employees needed more space to negotiate mutually beneficial agreements.

“If a large company like Coles and Australia’s largest union find the ‘better off overall test’ difficult to interpret, it is an ­indicator that small business would also struggle to navigate the cumbersome and complex workplace system,” he said, favouring the less restrictive “no disadvantage test” ­recom­mended by the Productivity ­Commission.

The challenge by Duncan Hart was supported by the ­National Tertiary Education Union, which spent $1m campaigning for the Greens in 2013. The NTEU’s Josh Cullinan said the FWC accepted his “conservative” estimate some workers were underpaid about $1700 a year. With Sunday penalties, he said, the scale of the “rip off could be as high as $100m”. Coles declined to comment.

Jenny Vickers, a part-time Coles night-worker, urged a Senate inquiry into “systemic failures” at the FWC and called on Employment Minister Michaelia Cash to review collective agreements across the retail sector.

SDA-backed senators Chris Ketter and Helen Polley, when contacted by The Australian, separately provided identical statements saying the offending pay deal would have been upheld under the Coalition’s former industrial regime, Work Choices.