SaveMart shows why unions are vital for New Zealand

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: , ,

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.




47 comments on “SaveMart shows why unions are vital for New Zealand”

  1. ianmac 1

    Incredible that these days only 11% of the work force belong to unions. Wonder why successive governments have made it so difficult to belong.
    Zero contract hours?
    Workers working several jobs?
    Can be fired without notice?
    Low pay is better than no pay?

    • infused 1.1

      All the ones I’ve had dealing with are assholes and act like bullies. There’s always more than one side to the story.

      • tracey 1.1.1

        It is about the relationship. And that goes both ways. In many union employer relationships both sides are entrenched in adversarial low trust relationships.

      • millsy 1.1.2

        Seems you described yourself there. Given the fact that you are on record as saying you love firing your workers all the time.

      • esoteric pineapples 1.1.3

        The representatives in the union I’m a member of are fantastic. I think they do an amazing job, especially considering the toxic situations they have to deal with on a daily basis.

    • Baba Yaga 1.2

      “Wonder why successive governments have made it so difficult to belong.”
      They haven’t. They’ve just given us choice. It just so happens that most workers have chosen some other form of representation.

      The SaveMart case is a good example of why some people choose to join unions. There will be other examples of why people choose not to.

  2. tracey 2

    And those NZers who have supported this steady erosion of basic rights with who they vote for cannot comfort themselves with ” lazy bludgers” as they do with poor treatment of our beneficiaries.

    The lack of rise in real wages ( unless you be politician or CEO) coincides with the deliberate decimation of union membership.

    Keep up the great work Richard.

  3. tracey 3

    Compare this

    June 2016

    “NZ Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson said growers supported the Government prosecuting people who broke the law.

    “The overwhelming majority of our industry complies with labour regulations and we have an ongoing work programme with government agencies to educate growers and contractors about their legal responsibilities to their workers.

    “Kiwifruit is a major contributor to regional economies and we take our responsibilities to our community very seriously – we strongly condemn these illegal and unprincipled actions.”

    To this

    July 2017

    ” NZ Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Nikki Johnson said the findings were disappointing, but not surprising.

    “We’ve been aware of issues around labour compliance for some time… the operation that MBIE have announced took place in the 2016 harvest so we’ve been working proactively on this issue for some time.

    “The level of non-compliance is perhaps surprising, but it does mean that the work we are doing is justified… we’ll be looking for improvement across the industry. ”

    I note that taxpayers are paying to upskill employers… Employers are not paying to get themselves upskilled. Just so we are clear, this is a business subsidy

    • Stuart Munro 3.1

      Why do they need educating?

      You break non employment laws and the police will tell you ignorance is no excuse – as they charge you. It’s government collusion in illegal employment practices.

  4. Michael 4

    Our employment laws are so inadequate, Mr Wagstaff, because you collaborated with successive governments that deliberately made them that way.

  5. Incognito 5

    Collectivism got replaced by hyper-individualism. Socialism got replaced by neoliberalism. Will the unions make a comeback or will we see a different kind of community spirit rising up?

  6. Barfly 6

    Would someone care to do a “Whaleoil” by publicly announcing Mr. Doohan’s address?

    – not that I would ever suggest anyone should threaten such a wonderful employer but perhaps with a physical address people could most accurately communicate their desire to him for fair treatment of his employees.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 6.1

      Echo, echo…

      So you kinda suggested it twice already. I think it’s a bad idea.

      • Ian 6.1.1

        For once I agree with you. I can remember Tom Doonan,s first few years in NZ as I think an assisted imigrant from the UK. A 10 pound pom from memory. He has done pretty well for himself considering his first job in NZ was weeding pumpkins and I note he has donated $3.5 million to charities over the years. Think of all the cotton he has rescued from landfills,the money he has paid to employees,the tax he has paid and the union crap he has negotiated through. The guy deserves a knighthood.

        • McFlock

          His workers don’t even get gloves to deal with real crap.

          Fuck that guy.

        • One Anonymous Bloke


          What McFlock said. Think of all the ethical employers he’s put out of business in his race to the bottom.

        • One Anonymous Bloke

          …not to mention breaking the law.

          I note that Ian cuddles up to crims.

    • gsays 6.2

      Wouldn’t emailling your disapproval be enough?

  7. Whispering Kate 7

    Odd I don’t see any Nats coming on to this post trying to make excuses, fudge and generally try to defend these disgraceful employers – and there are thousands in NZ, in small businesses and many large corporations who are little hitlers. I always think of small business owners as people who are not team players, want to be the big boy and are generally unemployable and hence they start up their own enterprises.

    Yes, I understand that there are many small business owners who are decent and abide by the law but most of the little hitlers I have come across are small business owners.

  8. We started a public campaign to save the jobs of SaveMart employees who had been bullied for speaking out.

    Shouldn’t be trying to save these jobs – they’re not worth saving. Instead they should be getting the place closed down and suing the owners for several million dollars.

    There’s probably some criminal charges that need to be applied as well.

    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.

    Correct, it shouldn’t have so we, as a Nation, should be asking how it did. What deregulation and unenforcement of existing laws has allowed or even encouraged this sort of behaviour by owners?

    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.

    And then there are the majority of managers and business owners who think that their ideas are the only good ones. That employees should simply do as they’re told and will find someway to get rid of people who question them.

    These are, from what I can make out, the majority of employers.

    Helen Kelly had a simple answer to how this happened – ‘It’s by design’. She meant that bad working conditions are no accident.

    And, IMO, she would be right. What we’re seeing is the result of a concerted effort over decades by a few people to undermine the poor. These few people lie, cheat and spread malicious lies about other people to get their way.

    And we all know, after a campaign of lies, which political party supports them.

    • Antoine 8.1

      >> We started a public campaign to save the jobs of SaveMart employees who had been bullied for speaking out.

      > Shouldn’t be trying to save these jobs – they’re not worth saving. Instead they should be getting the place closed down and suing the owners for several million dollars.

      I’m wondering what the correct legal recourse here is. Is it for staff members (or the union on their behalf) to take the employer to court? or is there some kind of employment disputes resolution service? or …?

      Yours ignorantly

      • yeah, can’t say I know either. The employer’s actions seems to have broken all sorts of moral and legal codes but no one seems to be taking them to court.

        • Michael

          That’s because the Judges are all right-wingers. At any rate, they interpret and apply neoliberal employment law in ways that favour employers. The Union will be well aware of the costs of litigation – especially if it loses.

          • Antoine

            > That’s because the Judges are all right-wingers. At any rate, they interpret and apply neoliberal employment law in ways that favour employers.

            That sounds like a bunch of rubbish to me.

            Does anyone here know the actual answer?


          • One Anonymous Bloke

            the Judges are all right-wingers

            Not in my experience.

            they interpret and apply neoliberal employment law in ways that favour employers

            [Multiple citations and meta-analyses needed]

          • Draco T Bastard

            If they’re not getting to court then the judges have no say.

        • Wainwright

          Because it literally takes years to get anything through the employment relations authortity and workers don’t have the luxury of waiting for the process to play out the way bosses do.

      • One Anonymous Bloke 8.1.2

        Any reasonably experienced lawyer should be able to get such a stupid reckless client to back down the moment they get legal advice.

        Which makes me wonder what Talley’s problem is.

  9. Upnorth 9

    Unions should not be taking credit. The employees should…they paid millions to the unions and had to kick their arsenal to do something.
    Go the employees I say!

    • One Anonymous Bloke 9.1

      …they paid millions to the unions…

      Wow! Is that true! I can hardly believe it. Kick them you say. Wouldn’t a simple phone call or email have done the trick?

      No matter, obviously you’re in the know.

      • Upnorth 9.1.1

        Yep unions are lazy

        • One Anonymous Bloke

          Yawn. Tiresome ungrateful brat. Read the OP: it clearly demonstrates the value of unions. For further information on how unions can protect workers from low-life centre-right bullies, contact Mr. Peter Talley.

    • Baba Yaga 9.2

      “…and had to kick their arsenal to do something.”
      Really? Sounds to me like the Union acted promptly and effectively. Do you know something we don’t?

  10. Barfly 10

    Would someone care to do a “Whaleoil” by publicly announcing Mr. Doohan’s address?

    – not that I would ever suggest anyone should threaten such a wonderful employer but perhaps with a physical address people could most accurately communicate their desire to him for fair treatment of his employees.

    • McFlock 10.1

      Nice try with your second paragraph, but it would still evaporate if anything bad did actually happen as a result of your request being granted.

      Email, boycott, see your MP, write letters to the editor. Don’t be a dick.

  11. Dot 11

    Cheers for collectivism and thanks for all your valuable work

  12. McFlock 12

    It’s the lack of gloves that gets me – that’s just gross. What sort of arsehole thinks that’s ok? And a lot of people might think Save Mart is like an opshop, when it doesn’t even do good things for its employees, let alone anyone else.

  13. Anonymous 13

    I’m surprised they make enough money to dump all the waste they receive, let alone pay 10 wages.

    So wait, did they get any punishment /at all/ for breaking health & safety AND employment law?

  14. Wayne_2 14

    I find it incredible that the employer is not being hauled over the coals for this.
    Surely the legal rights of these employees have been breached?

    This is such an egregious, blatant case of employer bullying that Mr Doonan should be in court being sued for all the prick is worth.

    • Tricledrown 14.1

      Successive National govts have destroyed unions and cut the Labour inspectorate’s to virtually non existant.

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