Written By: - Date published: 2:02 pm, September 27th, 2017 - 47 comments
Categories: employment, health and safety, jobs, minimum wage, poverty, Unions, wages, workers' rights - Tags: child cancer, john campbell, savemart
Those of you who are keen op shoppers will have been following the explosive story of SaveMart employees over the last few weeks. John Campbell on Radio New Zealand first aired the allegations that employees in the New Lynn store were being made to sort through bales of filthy clothing dumped in Child Cancer charity bins, without gloves. Employees found used syringes, dirty nappies, bloody underwear, sex toys and even a dumped sheep’s head. Just as importantly for SaveMart shoppers, the clothes are not cleaned before sale. It is only the ‘pickers’, minimum wage workers, mostly women, who are responsible for sorting through which clothes should be hanging in your wardrobe and which are destined for the rubbish. They were told they had to use their bare hands to feel if fabric was soiled or wet.
When the women at the New Lynn store were denied their request for gloves, they contacted their union, First Union, for help. Worksafe New Zealand was brought in by their union, and in response SaveMart separated the unionised staff from non-union employees with metal bars. Staff were told by management not to socialise with each other outside of work. Eventually, owner Tom Doonan decided to fire all the people who had joined First union.
New Lynn isn’t the only store that contacted Worksafe to try to improve conditions. In Napier, after staff unionised and called in an inspector, the store closed for three months when given a list of health and safety requirements. They simply reopened and rehired a new set of non-unionised staff. Authorities were aware that SaveMart wasn’t a great place.
These are the kinds of working conditions most New Zealanders find shocking and disgusting. We don’t expect people to be denied access to hot water to clean other people’s excrement off their hands, or denied drink bottles in the heat of summer. So those of us in unions decided to do something about it. We started a public campaign to save the jobs of SaveMart employees who had been bullied for speaking out. In just a week over 6,000 people had signed, including many loyal customers. Employees and ex-employees sent even more incredible stories in. On Monday, SaveMart announced they would be reinstating those 10 women who joined their union in New Lynn.
Union members will now be using crowd funding to train health and safety representatives in SaveMart stores. They will help make SaveMart a safer place for employees and also for the customers that shop there. Save Mart owner Tom Doonan has made a good profit for many years off other’s charity. It’s about time a better, safer deal is won for those who sort the clothes, clean the stores and put the money through the till. First Union members are also calling for everyone working at SaveMart to contact their union and get behind the campaign.
People working at SaveMart can now wear safety gloves because of the power of collective action. But there is something badly wrong when a campaign is needed to win something so basic. Unfortunately, this is just one example of an employer showing complete disregard for their employees. Health and safety and the right for employees to freely join in union, it should be a fundamental part of doing business in New Zealand. But sadly, for too many New Zealand working people like those at SaveMart, employers prevent their employees from knowing what their basic rights are.
The real question is, why did it take so much public pressure to achieve meaningful change? We think of these horrific working conditions as happening in ‘other countries’, not in New Lynn, Levin, or Christchurch. It should never have got to this point.
Being an employer is a big responsibility which requires respect for employees as people. Good employers in New Zealand recognise and respect their staff. They see their wellbeing as essential to good business performance. Good employers also respect and value the collective voice of their staff; their union. They recognise that when their staff join, and work together, in union it is an opportunity to improve the dialogue and engagement in the workplace.
Good employers aren’t threatened when working people raise workplace issues because they understand that real staff engagement involves staff being able to disagree and give voice to their own issues and ideas at work. Without that voice, employee views will too often come second to making a buck.
Sadly over the past three decades, there has been a steady erosion of the rights of working people. Employers are encouraged to be profit maximisers above all else and impose a command and control culture in the workplace. The new ‘normal’ for many younger New Zealanders, women, migrants, and people of colour is something older New Zealanders wouldn’t like or recognise. Helen Kelly had a simple answer to how this happened – ‘It’s by design’. She meant that bad working conditions are no accident. With Government support, companies like SaveMart and other bad employers have been encouraged to feel like its okay to deny working people their basic rights to things like health and safety and forming and joining in union.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change the future for working people in this country. We can have better employment laws which protect our rights and make sure all employers know what’s okay and what isn’t acceptable. Collectivism is about working people securing respect at work from all employers. When we stand together for basic Kiwi values, change is possible. There is strength in numbers and in unity. There is power in the collective. There is power when we work together in union. Join us.