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Source: First Union

As thousands of retail workers head into bargaining periods with major employers all over New Zealand to negotiate better wages and conditions, FIRST Union is kicking off a campaign to make the three biggest issues facing workers a central part of all upcoming negotiations with employers including Farmers, Briscoes, Bunnings, Kmart, Cotton On and H&M.
In 2021, over 2000 retail workers who are members of FIRST Union will enter bargaining with employers as their existing Collective Agreements expire and new deals must be signed.
Prior to the most recent Covid-19 lockdown, FIRST Union had been conducting national Stop Work meetings, where union members met during the working day to discuss common issues and opportunities across brands and settled on three key themes to highlight with employers during upcoming bargaining periods.
1. Healthy staffing 
2. Secure hours 
3. Living wages
“The first and most foundational issue facing retail workers is understaffing, which is a practice that has somehow been seen as ‘good business’ until the pandemic came along,” said Tali Williams, FIRST Union Secretary for Retail, Finance and Commerce.
“The American model of cavernous megastores with towers of products but no one to help you buy them has slowly but surely been exported to New Zealand over the last two decades despite the fact that Kiwis haven’t ever enjoyed shopping in that way.”
“But the pandemic has highlighted how important safe staffing levels are when retail workers are unable to take sick leave and end up putting themselves and customers at risk because they can’t afford to stay home.”
“Deliberate understaffing had already made retail work unattractive as a career for many people, and the pandemic has shown us why it mustn’t be a viable business decision for employers either – it is exacerbating a public health crisis.”
FIRST Union maintains that understaffing is an issue pertaining to an employee’s right to health and safety at work, and will pursue an industrial strategy that utilises existing legislation to hold employers to account for consistent and deliberate unsafe staffing levels.
“Insecure hours are another by-product of understaffing, and we’re hearing that this slippery slope has reached a precipice during the pandemic,” said Ms Williams.
“Insecure hours are the result of businesses not allocating enough labour to operate overall and then rationing hours between their workforce, or, as in the case of The Warehouse, cutting hours to trim costs.”
“Employers have used every excuse in the book to lower their wage costs during the pandemic despite taking millions in wage subsidies and remaining profitable throughout.”
“But reductions in store hours have been used as a stealth tactic by employers to reduce costs while avoiding the negative press of redundancy, and retail workers have suffered silently at the same time as many of them were being branded essential by the public.”
“There is nothing more demeaning and disheartening for retail workers than competing for shifts with your friends and colleagues when all of you are struggling financially and are not earning a living wage to be there in the first place.”
The first major retail employer to begin bargaining with FIRST Union is hardware retail chain Bunnings. While negotiations over a national Collective Agreement continue this week, Bunnings have not yet offered a living wage or been willing to address staffing levels or insecure hours during bargaining.
Bunnings is owned by Australian conglomerate Wesfarmers, who reported a 10% rise in revenues during the pandemic in a year (FY20) that saw net profits of around $2bn. Managing director Rob Scott highlighted the “dedication of team members” in a tough year and attributed strong rises in Bunnings’ individual earnings (revenue up 13.9% to $15bn) to changing consumer behaviour, like many taking up hobbies and projects at home.
“The third issue that will apply across the board in retail bargaining is the living wage,” said Ms Williams.
“This is such an obvious and easy way to hire and retain high-quality staff that most retail employers are already aware of the advantages of paying a base living wage and are already moving that way.”
Bunnings were widely congratulated as one of the first major employers to sign a living wage deal with FIRST Union, but Ms Williams notes that the chain is currently choosing not to continue with this decision.
(Five anonymised quotes from retail workers at Stop Work meetings held in the Bay of Plenty and Waikato):
– “There’s an ‘unwritten code’… we have to NOT follow the rules to get the job done. It isn’t safe.” (Bunnings) 
– “I dread breaks because I have to walk past empty counters and customers will see me and ask for help even though I know almost nothing about (the department). Some get abusive.” (Farmers) 
– “You don’t ‘break’, you just go into work and have a heart attack on a Monday morning.” (Bunnings) 
– “Even as a manager you will struggle to get a living wage out of them.” (Cotton On) 
– (On theft and loss prevention) – “It’s cheaper to leave people stealing rather than have adequate staffing levels, and it puts us in danger.” (Bunnings)
Upcoming bargaining periods between FIRST Union and retail employers
– Briscoes – beginning today 
– H&M – beginning Wednesday 10 March 
– Farmers – beginning Monday 15 March 
– Cotton On – beginning Thursday 18 March
Attached details
The attached photos were taken at FIRST Union Stop Work meetings over the last fortnight, and depict FIRST Union members meeting to bargain in Wellington, Tauranga and Hamilton. They may be reprinted or reposted in any media.
For further information:
– Stay tuned for details of our upcoming roundtable meeting between retail workers and MPs 
– Stay tuned for further details this week about bargaining at Bunnings