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Cottoning on to new ways of exploiting workers

Written By: - Date published: 8:30 am, March 24th, 2015 - 67 comments
Categories: boycott, employment, workers' rights - Tags: , , , ,

Cotton On have hit the news for all the wrong reasons, with FIRST Union revealing that they’re pushing to remove guaranteed rest and meal breaks from workers in their distribution centre. FIRST General Secretary Robert Reid says:

“Breaks are crucial on industrial sites because they keep people safe. Worker fatigue is a risk on an industrial site like the Cotton On distribution centre. Removing breaks increases the risk to workers. After the government’s law changes removing tea and meal breaks is legal, but that does not make it ethical or sensible”

Labour’s labour spokesperson Iain Lees-Galloway demonstrates how this absolutely puts the lie to John Key’s promises about his unfair employment law changes:

“John Key told Kiwis who work for a living that their tea breaks would not be taken away from them by the law change. Yet at the very first opportunity, we see a large employer trying to claw back their staff’s right to a break.

“John Key also told us that the law change was about supporting small New Zealand businesses. Yet the first to take advantage of it is a wealthy Australian corporation.

“And John Key said that industries such as hospitality and air traffic control were the ones that needed the law change. Yet people working in retail with predicable customer demand are the first to be hit.

It really defies belief – at least, if you’re a person who understands that workers aren’t robots and that there’s some basic principles which are more important than profit – like making sure every worker goes home safe and well at the end of their shift, not worn out like a machine part.

But look at Cotton On’s own weaselly, misleading defence of themselves:

In response to recent comments made by First Union NZ, the Cotton On Group would like to make it clear that no changes have been made to our workers’ rights in any of our distribution centres. Negotiations are currently in place between the Cotton On Group and First Union with no agreement having yet been made.

The Cotton On Group is committed to having highly engaged staff and we have an effective two-way communication process in place, by way of implementation of our consultative committees which exist in each of our DCs globally, allowing each and every one of our people to have a voice.

To ensure we can maintain the integrity of the negotiation process we are committed to continue our conversations with First Union until an agreement is made. Our people and their working conditions have and always will be our top priority.

That’s literally the whole statement. In the first paragraph, they try to misdirect you about the facts of the matter: FIRST’s release is very clear that these are changes being negotiated (demanded) by Cotton On in bargaining. The second paragraph reads like it was written by the people behind the infamous Target union-busting video.

And the third paragraph is simply a lie. “Your people” (or as Cotton On and Target both call them, “our team members”) and their working conditions simply can’t be your top priority if you’re trying to take away the guaranteed breaks they already get under their agreement!

When the Employment Relations Amendment Bill was proposed, then-Minister of Labour Simon Bridges made a great hue and cry about “flexibility” and “fairness” in the workplace. Cotton On is showing us exactly what that means – and sadly, they won’t be the only ones.

67 comments on “Cottoning on to new ways of exploiting workers ”

  1. Colonial Rawshark 1

    I’d love to see what breaks senior management give themselves during a working day in head office.

  2. fisiani 2

    The sky is falling……..The sky is falling said Chicken Little aka Robert Reid
    Cotton On staff will still have tea breaks and lunch breaks and you well know that. That is the law. They may have to stagger their tea breaks rather than everyone walk off the floor at 10am. Do you seriously claim that this company will not allow staff to have a cup of tea? And you wonder why people do not take the Left seriously.

    [Stephanie: as this is my post, my moderation standards apply, and I am simply not going to waste time on anti-worker trolling like “everyone walk off the floor at 10am”. Grow up or GTFO.]

    • infused 2.1

      Pretty much. Same as the outrage over 90 day trails. The left will never remove this now.

      • Repeal of the Employment Relations Amendment Bill and scrapping of the 90-day trials were key parts of Labour’s workers’ policy in the last election. Since they’ve not been in a position to actually do or not do those things, I suggest it’s not really helpful to make sneery predictions about it.

        • Puckish Rogue 2.1.1.1

          Labour also got a drubbing in the last election as well, something to think about maybe

          • Atiawa 2.1.1.1.1

            Labour did receive a drubbing in the last election.

            Democracy, open & honest government though were the main casualties.

          • Stephanie Rodgers 2.1.1.1.2

            How is that in any way relevant to the comment I was replying to? Try not to troll.

            • Puckish Rogue 2.1.1.1.2.1

              You brought up that Labour had Repeal of the Employment Relations Amendment Bill and scrapping of the 90-day trials as key parts of Labour’s workers’ policy in the last election

              I suggested that Labours drubbing was due, in part, to what Labour wanted to repeal and scrap and how out of youch Labour had become

              • adam

                PR spin again – What is in your crack pipe these days Puckish Rogue?

                I mean your almost as desperate as theblackkitten and reaching for t.i.n.a.

                Wow, you must be worried, it that tears I see?

                When you dribble can you at least come up some better arguments. It’s not the 1980’s, you know?

                • infused

                  It’s correct. No one from business is going to vote labour if they wish to repeal that law. It’s just retarded.

                  • Pasupial

                    infused

                    “No one from business is going to vote labour” anyway, so what exactly is the point of the LP pandering to them?

                    Please try to refrain from casual derogation of the mentally impaired in future comments. I don’t expect you to understand why; given your own empathy impairment, but it is needlessly offensive.

        • infused 2.1.1.2

          I’m not. Did you miss the part where Andrew Little backed down on the 90 day trial? I’m guessing so.

    • Skinny 2.2

      What a disrespectful comment. Please have an ounce of humanity for the 2 workers that lost their lives on the job in this industry. Fatigue is a major contributor to workplace deaths & injuries. No amount of money or time swaps replaces regular rest breaks. There is one way to sort this scumbag employer and that is a boycott and picketing outside their stores to let other workers know what their up too.

      Fortunately I hope Peters gets elected to stop National imposing further nasty employment law changes.

    • BassGuy 2.3

      Do you seriously claim that this company will not allow staff to have a cup of tea?

      Mine doesn’t, so why wouldn’t Cotton On?

      It seems that unscrupulous employers will use employment law to get whatever they can from their minimum wage employees and offer nothing in return.

      • The lost sheep 2.3.1

        What kind of company do you work for, and on what basis are you not allowed a cup of tea?

        • BassGuy 2.3.1.1

          I can’t say too much because the industry I’m in is a very small one.

          When I signed up with them, they said that the industry is one with flexible hours, so breaks would need to be taken when it was convenient due to the workload. This is reasonable, but what isn’t is that it’s been set up so that we work until the work’s done, and then we go home. 2 hours, 9 hours, doesn’t matter, if we don’t get a chance to have a break that’s our problem (so says the CEO).

          In the other room, I’ve actually got a written warning telling me off for wasting company time when I started taking my breaks (as was my right to do).

          There’s obviously a lot more to it than just that, but that’d give away too much information and I’d be up the creek with my employer…

      • Philip Ferguson 2.3.2

        A friend of mine handles a lot of personal grievances cases in situations where workers aren’t unionised or haven’t got satisfaction via the union. She was telling me not long ago abut what she has identified as quite common – people working on stalls in a mall where they are the sole employee on any particular day.

        Not only are they *not* guaranteed a teabreak, they find it very hard to even get to the toilet because there’s no-one else to do their job while they go for a pee or take a dump.

        Moreover, workers in the mall jobs above find it very difficult to do anything about their conditions. They can’t afford to go on strike because they have no reserves to live off and, generally, aren’t unionised. There’s a queue more workers waiting for their job if they alienate the boss, because many people will take even the shittiest work because they can’t otherwise make ends meet.

        Some people here have simply got no idea how a section of workers are treated and the conditions they have to live under, because there are no options.

        And when the snobs do have to face the facts about the conditions under which such workers labour, their stock response is “Well, they can always leave and get another job.”

        Well, firstly, they can’t because these “other” (supposedly higher-paying jobs) are pretty thin on the ground and the queues for them are very long.

        But, even more significantly, employers require *someone* to do these shitty jobs, so even if a string of people walk off and leave them, the employers still need the jobs done and will simply find more workers somewhere else. And if the labour market here won’t supply them, they’ll get the law changed to import them from countries where workers are usually paid less. And then the state will try to stop migrant workers organising, employers will try to stop them joining unions and so on. (I should make clear here, that I’m in favour of migrant workers, and don’t think that the left helps itself with its all-too-frequent petty kiwi nationalism around the immigration issue.)

        • Karen 2.3.2.1

          +1 Philip
          Back in the late 1980s I worked Sundays in a shop where I was the only one and I had to close the shop to go to the toilet. It wasn’t very busy so I could do that, and I didn’t mind having no break for lunch because I only worked there on Sundays and got double time. After the Employment Contracts Act came in penal rates disappeared and that job was no longer worth it.

          I was lucky – I had choices, but most people who do these kind of jobs have no choice.

        • The lost sheep 2.3.2.2

          Clearly, it is not ‘reasonable’ under current law for an employee to work for an extended period without access to a break or toilet!
          By it’s nature, I would think a stall is reasonably easy to shut so a sole charge employee can ‘rest, refresh and take care of personal matters’.

          Has your friend taken any of these Personal Grievance situations to M.B.I.E? I would be very interested to know their response to such a case.

          • One Anonymous Bloke 2.3.2.2.1

            reasonably easy to shut.

            Do you ever think before you dribble?

            Open on all eight sides…

            • The lost sheep 2.3.2.2.1.1

              In the case that it cannot be shut and locked, and I’m struggling to think of any I’ve ever seen that can’t be, then it would be clearly unreasonable to have an arrangement where an employee was unable to rest or go to the toilet?

              So I would be interested to know if such a situation has been tested with M.B.I.E.

              By the way OAB. Fuck off.

              • One Anonymous Bloke

                Struggle away: see Rosie’s comment below.

                Reality doesn’t conform with your smug, self-serving ignorance, Marie Antoinette.

          • Rosie 2.3.2.2.2

            Lost sheep. No those mall stalls aren’t easy to shut and secure. Most are not enclosed so any absence of staff leaves the stock vulnerable to being stolen. There is also the till and the cash float to consider. They can’t be left unattended. Some older tills are easy to open.
            If they are lucky they may a friend who works in a store who might come out to keep an eye on the stall but their employer would have to agree to that first.

            Have a look next time you are in a mall. There isn’t many ways those stalls can be secured during trading hours.

        • Rosie 2.3.2.3

          Yep, agreed Philip. I can empathise with those sole employee mall workers.

          For twenty months I was a sole employee in a store. One day out of four I had a workmate. Two of us covered the seven day operation of the shop.

          I had no morning tea, lunch or afternoon tea break for those twenty months. Unlike the mall workers in the stalls I could lock the store doors to go to the loo.

          I ended up on medication for anxiety and panic attacks due to the relentless monotony of brain draining sole work and fatigue. I later developed physical health problems as a result of the stress.

          I firmly believe the Employment Relations Amendment Act was passed with employers like my previous ones in mind, in regard to the breaks clause in the Act. It simply legitimises the poor conditions that people in retail (and I would say hospitality too), work under.

          Cotton On have taken it one step further and have boldly exploited the no breaks provision in the Act. There is no excuse for their proposals in negotiating the collective agreement with First Union, especially in a distribution centre where they are not dealing with customers. It also shows they are incompetent if they can’t manage breaks around the work schedule.

          I really hope that media attention and strong negotiating from First Union will make them retract their proposal to remove breaks. If not we will have entered a new era in sweat shop labour in NZ.

          • The lost sheep 2.3.2.3.1

            Under the previous law the situation you describe would have been illegal Rosie.

            Did you make contact with a Union / M.B.I.E or anyone else to attempt to resolve the situation?

            • felix 2.3.2.3.1.1

              “Under the previous law the situation you describe would have been illegal”

              And John Key’s government has made it legal.

              • The lost sheep

                For many years I employed sole charge retail workers on an arrangement where they got paid 9 hours for working an 8 hour day, during which they took breaks and lunch as and when customers allowed.

                I always made the offer that they could work a standard 8 hour day, shutting the shop for paid tea breaks, and an unpaid lunch break at set times, but only ever had 1 employee chose that over the more lucrative offer.

                So neither myself or my sole charge employees found the new law very disruptive, as we already had a very reasonable agreement in place.

                • McFlock

                  🙄
                  cute story, bro

                  • The lost sheep

                    In your Marxist class war world view of all employers as cigar smoking haters and enslavers of humanity such a scenario is impossible McFlock, so I forgive your cynicism.

                    • felix

                      Most employers actually have pretty good relationships with most staff most of the time. Do you agree? I suspect you do.

                      Now, read that first sentence out loud and see if you can spot the problem with allowing all employers to govern all breaks all of the time.

                      ps I’ve never seen McFlock write anything that would suggest such a view. Perhaps you could cite an example or apologize for the characterisation.

                    • McFlock

                      I simply find somewhat unlikely the odds of someone who is dumb enough to confuse the fact that they didn’t find a law change “very disruptive” with the fact that some employers are using the law change to abuse workers being able to competently manage a business.

                      Stranger things have happened, I guess.

                    • felix

                      I’ve never robbed a petrol station at gunpoint, and I can’t understand why the Nanny State National govt thinks it should remain illegal.

                      It’s like they have this dystopian cartoon world view in which we are all running around with stockings over our heads and brandishing sawn-offs.

            • Rosie 2.3.2.3.1.2

              Yes it was illegal at that time, (2009 – 2011)I was well aware of that.

              I was a Union member but there was nothing they could do for me. They represented me and my co worker on other issues, such as the employer trying to dictate when we take annual leave but didn’t take them up on the no breaks issue. I also phoned the former Dept of Labour and they said they couldn’t offer any solutions.

              At the time I was offered the job I said to the employer that I would need to shut the shop for 30 minutes to take my lunch break. They said I wouldn’t be doing that and that if I didn’t like it I didn’t have to work there. But I did, I was desperate for $$$

              • Rosie

                Furthermore Lost Sheep, it would be naive to presume that because certain employment practices are illegal that those employee’s exposed to such practices would simply be able to have their grievances addressed through legal channels, and all would be well. It just doesn’t work like that in real life.

                In the case of sole workers it is quite possible as a society we put their issues in the too hard basket, after all there would have been thousands of such workers dotted all over the country, and how would you deal with that?

                Well National’s answer, as I mentioned earlier was to legitimise those poor employment practices by removing the right to a break all together.

                And to repeat what I I mentioned earlier, we now have an employer without any valid reason, attempting to remove the right to a break in their collective agreement. The ER Amendment Act may prove to be the springboard to levels of exploitation we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

                • BassGuy

                  As if to reinforce your point, I’ve been told that three anonymous complaints have been laid against my employer by family and friends of family (because named complaints could potentially be traced back to me and I’d face consequences for that) and not a single one of those has been followed through. No interviews with staff, not a thing has been done.

                  The complaints specifically address: inaccurate time sheets and the employer making changes to them (removing worked hours), lack of breaks, and not being paid for stat holidays.

                  So, it seems for those of us at the bottom of the rung, there are very few protections.

              • Lanthanide

                You could have forced the issue by shutting the shop for 30 minutes and having your break. Eventually if they found out about it, any real action by them would allow for a personal grievance, which you almost certainly would win.

                Big amount of stress and bother though, and could make it difficult to get a future job (being seen as a troublemaker etc).

                • Rosie

                  The risk was too great Lanthanide. Sometimes we find ourselves over a barrel with employers and that was one of those times. And yes, getting branded a trouble maker basically black lists you for future work, which is grossly unfair when you’ve not done anything wrong.

                  The one day of the week I had a co worker, we tended to go overboard with our breaks to make up for lost time. That was they only way we could address the issue in the end.

              • The lost sheep

                Frankly Rosie, as it was illegal I cannot understand on why on earth your Union could do nothing for you? What Union was that?

                I am in retail and over the years I have assisted probably 30 employees in this exact situation. On only 2 occasions did it take more than simply advising the employer that the staff member would be lodging a PG to resolve the issue.
                The remaining 2 cases were resolved by requesting mediation through M.B.I.E. and took about 10 mins with mediators for the employer to back track very quickly.

                If you ever find yourself in a similar situation with a Union or anyone that won’t help you in a case you believe the law is clearly being breached, I can suggest contacted your nearest Community Law Centre for assistance.
                They generally do an excellent job.

                • Rosie

                  Good for you for compensating your workers Lost Sheep. Glad it worked out for them with minimal hassle.

                  I’m not prepared to go any further into my previous situation with you or name the Union for your benefit. I am also well aware of the Community Law Centre.

                  I get the feeling that because there hasn’t been any issue with tea break regs in your experience that you fail to see how it can be for anyone else.

                  What I have tried to get across twice now, is the main point being that the National Govt have given employers the go ahead to exploit workers, and by the looks we’re already seeing an example of give an inch take a mile.

                  Workplace issues are broader than the limited scope that legal action provides, as a remedy to those issues. Workplace issues are societal ones and they are political ones. Our voting impacts on the direction our employment laws take.

                  If you are concerned that workers get treated fairly, and it sounds like you do, you need to think about voting National out in 2017.

                  • The lost sheep

                    I don’t believe the new law allows workers to be exploited Rosie.
                    How many workers are employed throughout NZ, and how long has it taken for one case to come up that looks contentious?
                    And I guarantee that whatever Cotton On are trying to do, it WILL NOT result in those workers being denied the right to tea breaks and lunch breaks.

                    How about we watch for the outcome and see what happens? if I am wrong I will come back and say so.

    • Atiawa 2.4

      Why don’t you fuck off and share your unsubstantiated views with those who might be interested in what you have to say. You really are a plonker of the highest order.

    • adam 2.5

      Love you fisiani – you septic tank full of fatuous comments.

      Any lie you need, to help cover up the lies of dear leader.

      Any chance you can write anything which is not ideological?

      Ignoble fan boy for Key.

      Such puerile rancour to defend your voracity.

  3. Kiwiri - Raided of the Last Shark 3

    The company was hoping people would not cotton on their cynical PR by posting a Facebook message during the weekend to say “Happy Human Rights Day Everyone!” ???

    Looks like they certainly invited a whole load of comments:

    • Colonial Rawshark 3.1

      PR is one of the most evil disciplines known to modern man. So seems par for the course.

  4. Olwyn 4

    The PR formula is always the same – use the “little battler’s” so-called interests to advance corporate interests, whether it is mum and dad investors, the Sallies or the little suburban shop. While the little suburban shop might be mildly inconvenienced by someone’s tea break, it is the firm with shops in every town that increases it margin. With Key doing what he can to undermine unions, we need to get better at collectively boycotting shops that mistreat their workers. It is easy to do without Cotton on’s nickers and hard to see how legislation could be introduced obliging us to buy them.

  5. Lanthanide 5

    Worksafe should put out a warning that any company at which curtailment of meal breaks is found to have contributed to a health and safety incident will be severely fined.

  6. saveNZ 6

    Disgusting. Down the road to serfdom.

    We are going backwards not forwards as a country for human rights.

  7. vto 7

    Has John Key ever belonged to a union?
    Has John Key ever read a book about workers and union history?
    Has John Key ever done the work of a real man? or woman?

    Looking at how he swings a hammer, the answer is clearly no, never. John Key has no idea what it is like to be an ordinary worker

  8. Rodel 8

    How long will it be till someone paints BOY on front of the company shop name?
    Not me but I wont be patronizing them.

  9. Philip Ferguson 9

    Employers are probably always going to push the envelope. And since there has been so little workers’ resistance in recent years – in fact there has been little resistance since the fight against the ECA – they feel confident enough to push the envelope further.

    What to do?

    Here’s veteran activist Don Franks on how this crap can be responded to:
    https://rdln.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/ways-to-wreck-the-teabreak-busting-bill/

    • Bill 9.1

      While I agree wholeheartedly with direct action – take your tea break anyway – the problem is, that in line with many people elsewhere, people here have become deeply acculturated to ideas of always seeking permission from perceived authority before acting.

      Such habits of acquiescence, driven as they are by fear, don’t get broken up so easily. Deepening those habits by stacking layer upon layer of new expectations, rules and sanctions on the other hand, is a simple affair. That it eventually breaks people, is neither here nor there in ‘the grand scheme of things’.

      Sadly, it’s not only exhibited in the workplace but also, arguably, in relation to rescue operations where coordinators, anxious to ‘follow the rules’, often seem to wind up ticking boxes instead of acting. Most dangerous of all from my perspective, is that it’s evident in relation to AGW where ‘everyone’, it seems, is waiting for a government (or some-such) to issue permissions instead of just jumping away from the freight-train.

  10. Atiawa 10

    Importers/retailers of clothing into this country, like Cotton On, must be making huge profits at the expense of the low paid exploited garment makers of India, China, Bangladesh etc.
    Has any research taken place into the mark-up those importers/retailers achieve as a result of sourcing their items from slave labour countries?
    When their buyers return from countries like India they must share their experiences with business owners. Its little wonder a tea or lunch break is seen as unnecessary. 20 minutes of lost time due to a tea break might be the difference between a bowl of rice for those workers and a few extra thousand $’s for Cotton On.

    • Draco T Bastard 10.1

      Has any research taken place into the mark-up those importers/retailers achieve as a result of sourcing their items from slave labour countries?

      John Pilger has a documentary on it. In it he mentions a pair of boxers that cost a few centres to make in the Philippines and sold for about 40 pounds in the UK.

  11. DH 11

    I’d like to see more genuine outrage from politicians on the left, too many seem to look at this as just another day at the office.

    In light of the unacceptable forestry deaths this law change was shameful and it’s a pity there’s no crime of attempted manslaughter because that’s what this is IMO.

    Fatigue kills and injures people. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, or denies it, should not be let anywhere near positions of authority. Regular rest breaks are not a luxury, they’re a necessity.

  12. Philip Ferguson 12

    I recall when I was a kid the Big Thing in capitalist palaver was The Leisure Society.

    The problem in the future wasn’t going to be unemployment or poverty. We were, we were told, now living in a period of permanent capitalist prosperity and it was all good for everyone.

    The big problem was going to be that, with the deployment of technology and machines, we were only going to have to work 20 hours a week and we’d be able to produce what once took 40 hours. The massive expansion of productivity meant we’d still be able to get the same incomes, and even bigger incomes, while working far less hours. So the problem facing us would be what on earth would we do with all this leisure time.

    Whatever did happen to that promise of The Leisure Society?
    https://rdln.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/whatever-happened-to-the-leisure-society/

    Phil

    • vto 12.1

      Silly. The leisure time got grabbed by the capitalists before the workers even knew it existed.

  13. dv 13

    Are these the same retailers who are upset about the GST issue?
    Makes you want to shop off shore.

    • Rosie 13.1

      It’s usually the higher end retailers that get upset about competing with GST free online stores. Those selling good quality clothing, shoes, jewellery, fragrance, books, music and home ware items etc.

      Cotton On sells singlets for $8. Probably not complaining too much about the online market. Their competition would local, like the Warehouse or K Mart.

      Like I said last week, lets have a GST free NZ to make life easier for all, but thats not the right topic for this thread 🙂

  14. Philip Ferguson 14

    Some inspiring working class resistance from Dublin:
    https://rdln.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/dublin-working-class-communities-show-how-resistance-is-done/

    This is the kind of fighting spirit we need here.

    Otherwise we can just expect more and more pushing of the envelope like Cotton On seems to be doing.

    I intend to write some more about Dublin working class communities because the resistance is continuing. It’s very much at grassroots level, while the trade union leaderships are playing political games with Labour and Sinn Fein (the Shinners look like they will virtually obliterate Labour in the next southern general election).

    Phil

    • Ennui 14.1

      Thats a bloody interesting story Phillip: I saw it reported on Russian TV who also had the riots in Stuttgart. A few years back some US corporate bought the water supply in La Paz so the locals collected water from the roofs. When the Bolivian government banned this the locals rebelled and the government fell.

      I love these Dubliners belligerence toward unfair practices. Write more.

  15. Kriss X 15

    Labour needs to raise its game and get into power, or we can all expect more of this sort of thing.

    These are the issues that matter to everyone. Not reverse onus when rape accusations are made, or the gender of our elected reps.

    Get back to grass roots and start representing the workers and little people again.

  16. Sable 16

    Welcome to the banana republic that New Zealand is being transformed into. We are now Australia’s Mexico and thanks to John Sleaze once the TPPA is signed we will be the US’s too.

    Hope the Nat creeps have put some land aside for the new shanty town we will all soon be living in.

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