Warehouse walkouts force bosses to put safety before profits

Workers in a number of warehouse distribution centres have won increased safety measures against coronavirus after walking off the job. They have shown how to stand up to bosses who put their profits before workers’ lives.

United Workers Union (UWU) members at the Coles Distribution Centre in Laverton, Victoria as well as AHG Refrigerated Logistics and Bremick Fasteners in Sydney have all taken action.

Warehouses delivering groceries as well as frozen or long life perishables to supermarket chains are remaining open throughout the Covid-19 crisis as essential parts of the economy.

But the bosses have been failing to provide workers with essential protective equipment including basic PPE, adequate cleaning and special leave and policies for workplace contamination.

According to UWU National Director Matt Toner, “80 per cent of our members are still working. Childcare workers, food factory workers, warehouse workers are still going to work. Without these guys the country would not work”.

Stopwork at Coles

On 27 March 80 workers walked off the job for several hours at a Coles distribution centre in Laverton in Melbourne.

John Abrahams, a delegate there, explained the health and safety concerns, “We’ve got machinery that comes up to your face and 700 people rocking in and out every single day… we had to push for at least one sanitiser wipe at the start of each shift to do our vocal headset and wipe down your machine”, he told the UWU’s “Workers taking action” broadcast.

“We decided to use the OH&S Act, it says in there if you feel unsafe, you have a right not to go back on site. So we walked out and we stayed out. That created a whole lot of headaches for managers inside, so they had to talk to us.”

The walkout won a raft of new safety measures, “we got temperature checks, sanitiser inside the DC itself where you do all the work, and time to sanitise your machinery every time you feel like it.

“We’ve got cleaners wiping stuff down now. Before you leave your shift, you must wipe down your gear,” he said.

Forty AHG Refrigerated Logistics workers in Sydney stopped work for five hours on 22 March after the company failed to provide access to alcohol-based hand sanitiser or sanitary wipes to clean equipment, and had done nothing to improve cleaning on site.

This saw the workers win action on all these issues, as well as a guarantee of 14 days paid special leave for anyone infected with coronavirus.

But this was not before the CEO stood down the workforce and threatened people with fines for taking industrial action.

At Bremick Fastners, workers another 21 workers stopped work for eight hours after two workers at the site tested positive for COVID-19, but the employer failed put in place adequate protections to ensure the safety of those still working, and potentially exposed to the virus.

A total of 15 workers who had been in close contact with those infected with the virus were stood down without pay while they self-isolated for two weeks.

Workplace health and safety law under section 84 of the Work Health Safety Act gives workers the right to cease work if they believe their workplace is unsafe. Unions have successfully used these provisions in the past too.

In 2018 Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) members at Hutchison, Port Botany stopped work after a serious safety incident involving a shuttle carrier which left the worker involved in a coma.

More recently port workers again used the provisions to stop work over toxic smoke during December’s bushfires.

While Morrison claims “we’re all in this together”, workers are being made to pay for the crisis with job losses, cuts to wages and conditions and unsafe workplaces.

OH&S provisions are a legal way for workers to use stop work action to win demands around workplace healthy and safety.

But workers and unions should be prepared to use this to defend workplace conditions including the demand for special paid leave during the Coronavirus crisis.

Stop work actions show the power of workers to defend their rights during health and economic crises and also provide opportunities to strengthen union organisation in the workplace.

As Coles Distribution Centre delegate John Abrahams put it, “we used to be important, now we’re essential. They can’t do it without us. If we go down, everything else falls apart”.

For those still at work, fighting for adequate safety and social distancing measures is crucial. These workers have shown how to win them.

By Ruby Wawn

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