Push to end exploitation of trolley collectors

 

 

The Fair Work Ombudsman is urging the nation’s major supermarket chains and shopping centres to help stamp out exploitation of vulnerable trolley collectors.

Trolley collectors are arguably among Australia’s most vulnerable and potentially exploited workers.

According to the 2011 Census, over a third of the 1500-strong national trolley-collecting workforce is under 20 years old and 40 per cent did not have an education beyond Year 10.

Twenty-nine per cent of trolley collectors were born outside of Australia (most in a non-English speaking country) and anecdotal evidence suggests many have physical or other disabilities.

In some cases, the Fair Work Ombudsman has discovered trolley collectors working for as little as $5 an hour for their physically demanding and often dangerous work.

In the past six years, the Fair Work Ombudsman and its predecessor have recouped more than $433,241for 528 underpaid trolley collectors at supermarket sites across Australia.

For example, a trolley collector in the Melbourne CBD reimbursed $7200 had only recently arrived from the Middle East and spoke limited English, but had the courage to come forward and complain after not being paid for six weeks’ work.

Since January 1, 2007, 11 matters have been placed before the courts alleging underpayment of trolley collectors – and the industry remains a persistent source of complaints.

Of those litigations which have been finalised, the Fair Work Ombudsman has achieved penalties totalling $288,000 in cases alleging the underpayment of dozens of trolley collectors by more than $426,000.

Currently, the Fair Work Ombudsman has four separate matters before the Courts alleging that collectively, 71 trolley collectors have been underpaid almost $485,000.

“All Australian workplaces – big and small – need to understand and apply Australia’s workplace laws to their business practices,” says Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James.

“Big companies sub-contracting out services on their sites have a responsibility to ensure those contracts do not undercut minimum employee entitlements.

“This responsibility extends to supply-chain contractors. Just because a company doesn’t ‘own’ the contract doesn’t mean it can wash its hands of it.”

Ms James says the Fair Work Ombudsman is determined to hold major employers to account for their procurement decisions, suggesting that they cannot turn a “blind eye” to minimum employee entitlements during the tendering process.

“Undercutting competitors’ costs is often the easiest way to win work and labour is the most significant cost,” she said. “Costs can, however, only be legitimately reduced so far before the statutory safety net is threatened, usually by below-award wages or employees being ‘misclassified’ as independent contractors.”

 

Ms James says three types of work that fall into this category that have come to the Agency’s attention are trolley collecting, cleaning and security.

 

“These industries have a number of features in common. This work is relatively low skill and highly labour intensive. It’s work that less educated, vulnerable workers can do, and so they feature predominately in these sorts of industries,” she said.

 

“And these are highly competitive industries in which businesses compete for contracts and where the profit margins, particularly on the labour component, are often low.”

 

Observing that the Fair Work Ombudsman deals with the contract trolley services industry more than it would like, Ms James welcomed a commitment from one major service provider, United Trolley Collections Pty Ltd (UTC), to partner with the Agency to ensure its sub-contractors are fully compliant with workplace laws.

 

UTC, which has more than 60 independent contractors and provides services throughout Australia, including at more than 700 Coles sites, has entered into a Proactive Compliance Deed (PCD) with the Fair Work Ombudsman.

 

Under the terms of PCD, UTC will:

 

  • Take all “reasonable steps” to ensure its contractors are compliant with workplace laws, including designing and implementing a training program to ensure they understand their obligations,

 

  • Work directly with its contractors to resolve future workplace complaints and rectify any underpayment of wages which are identified, and

 

  • Arrange to independently audit the pay-packets of 10 per cent of trolley collectors employed at sites operated by its contractors in every state and territory and rectify any issues identified.

 

 

The Fair Work Ombudsman has now signed a number of Proactive Compliance Deeds with major employers as they recognise the Deeds provide opportunities to facilitate better communication with their employees.

“Importantly, the Deeds also strengthen the co-operation and working arrangements between employers and ourselves,” Ms James said.

“The Deed provides a framework for us to work together. If the Fair Work Ombudsman just continues to react to complaints, it is not going to make significant inroads into the workplace relations compliance issues that exist in this industry.

“There will always be new operators moving into the industry and there will always be workers who will not complain about their entitlements for a variety of reasons, including their vulnerability and fear of reprisals.

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