Small business seeks inquiry into SDA deals with Coles, Woolies

The Australian, September 1, 2016:

The small-business lobby has called for a Senate inquiry into controversial pay deals between major retailers and the shop assistants union, as the union conceded wage agreements with KFC and Hungry Jack’s would no longer get the approval of the Fair Work Commission.

The Council of Small Business Australia will write to the ­Coalition, ALP, the Greens and Senate crossbenchers seeking an inquiry into agreements struck ­between the Shop, Distributive and Allied, Employees Association and Coles and Woolworths.

Council chief executive Peter Strong accused major retailers and the SDA of exploiting the workplace relations system to get ­approval of agreements that left workers employed on weekends worse off.

He said the big companies were being given an advantage over small retailers who were often forced to close on Sundays ­because they could not afford to pay penalty rates that existed under the industry award. “There is a two-tiered industrial relations system which impacts upon competition while denying employment ­opportunities to women and students,’’ he said.

The Senate inquiry should call Fair Work Commission president Iain Ross to explain how the deals were approved.

Coles announced in June that it would put workers back on a 2011 enterprise agreement rather than lift the pay of casual and part-time employees that the commission subsequently found were worse off under the rejected deal.

Union officials have conceded the deal would have potentially disadvantaged more than 11,000 of the supermarket chain’s 77,000 employees, despite 90 per cent of employees voting to support it.

Mr Strong said the inquiry should examine how the deals were approved; whether weekend workers were adequately ­informed about their pay compared with the award; and any ­related financial arrangements ­between the companies and the union. ‘’The reason the Senate should do this is to make sure it doesn’t happen again,’’ he said.

Greens industrial relations spokesman Adam Bandt said that while the Greens would not support an ­inquiry, the SDA “needs to explain why so many retail workers have been systematically underpaid”.

“We don’t support a parliamentary witch-hunt into unions but, at some point, the SDA needs to come clean on their cosy arrangements with big business,’’ he said.

Labor workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor cast doubt on ALP support for an inquiry. “This is a government that hasn’t responded to their own Productivity Commission review into workplace relations, they haven’t responded to their $80 million trade union royal commission, so we question the utility of another Senate committee that they won’t respond to,” he said.

The Australian revealed on Monday that the union had been forced to drop its practice of trading off penalty rates for higher base rates of pay in the wake of the commission’s rejection of the Coles deal. Gerard Dwyer, the union’s ­national secretary, yesterday ­denied a “majority of workers’’ were worse off under a number of retail agreements.

But he ­indicated the union ­believed agreements with KFC and Hungry Jack’s would not be passed if the commission ­imposed its “new application’’ of the Fair Work Act’s better-off-overall test. “Post the Coles decision the SDA has advised employers that existing loaded rates models will no longer meet the BOOT and new frameworks will need to be adopted,’’ he said.