November 21, 2021
From Red Flag (Australia)

Country Road warehouse workers in Melbourne’s west went out on strike on 11 November for the first time since the warehouse opened seven years ago.

The United Workers Union members have been in a fight for better pay and conditions for a year, but things escalated in May when negotiations for a new agreement began. After management refused to concede a mere $1 per hour pay rise, the workers voted to walk out.

When we headed down to the picket on the second day of the strike, the bosses had already spent an astronomical $100,000 on a Fair Work Commission injunction to force the workers to let scabs into the warehouse.

For many of the workers, the experience was very new. “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever been on strike”, Jan,* who has worked at the warehouse for several years, told Red Flag. Her workmate Tania was the same—she said that, while she used to shake when the boss approached her, the picket quickly changed that. “This has united us”, she said, “and the union has given us backbone to feel united and stand up for each other. I’m here for myself and others, we’re feeling very confident and very brave”.

In a predominantly female workforce, intimidation from the mostly male management is the norm. Workers sense that management see them as “just pussycats”, and the wages are on average $10 lower than in other, male-dominated, warehouses. The disparity is obvious to Jan. “The wages are horrible here, compared to over the road, where they are getting over $30, and here the average is $24.34. It’s not right.”

Pete, who has been with the company for 14 years in multiple warehouses, all with low wages, explained the impact of this kind of pay. “We’re underpaid. A lot of the workers here are women, and it’s about families as well. A lot of people survive week to week and that’s part of the struggle on a lower wage.”

The story couldn’t be more different for the bosses of Country Road. Owned by the multinational conglomerate Woolworths Holding Limited, in 2020 alone Country Road increased its profits by 44 percent and received $25 million in Jobkeeper payments from the federal government. For Pete, the fight is about that money returning to the workers who made it: “We’re fighting because they made so much profit this year, and we’re trying to get a bit back so we can have a living wage”.

Along with many others on strike, Pete emphasised that their demand for respect was just as important as their demand for more pay. “Bosses look down on you”, he says. “You’re just a number here; they don’t give you any respect, and we work so hard every day for them and they just treat you like a number.”

Workers have risked their lives and health in the past two years to make these profits, Tania explained. “Through the pandemic, everybody worked, every day, overtime; the pandemic didn’t affect the Country Road at all. We were all essential workers coming in, all worried about catching this disease. We weren’t in a position to stay home, and we came in day in and day out.”

While the company separated the 150-strong workforce into two teams, it wasn’t enough to protect them. “We have had a few outbreaks, and people have had to isolate. [Our breaks are] in a tent with no cooling, no heating, no airflow, which has been raised as a concern.”

For the bosses, this strike is about more than just pay and conditions. It’s about crushing the confidence of their workforce. With the workers vowing to keep fighting, the management is a long way off succeeding.

*Names have been changed.