UNITE, the fighting union for fast food and retail workers in Victoria, has been making waves recently by taking on employers that specifically exploit young workers. One of the cases that UNITE was involved with was when Video Dogs, a video shop in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, offered to pay young workers with DVD hire instead of wages.
UNITE broke the story in the national media and called on the Workplace Ombudsman to investigate. After Video Dogs were ‘named and shamed’ in the press, they paid out nearly $500 to six employees who were paid with DVDs. A number of other employees who were underpaid were also reimbursed more than $4300!
On the back of the publicity from the Video Dogs case, UNITE were approached by a group of retail workers from 7-Eleven convenience stores. Many of these workers were being paid as little as $9 per hour and face appalling working conditions. Most of the staff that work in 7-Eleven stores are international students.
Again under pressure from UNITE, the Workplace Ombudsman has been forced to investigate the claims. In mid August the Ombudsman conducted a series of raids on 7-Eleven stores in the Melbourne CBD demanding they produce all of their employment records.
UNITE has claimed that a proper investigation into 7-Eleven’s employment practices would reveal that hundreds of workers have been underpaid thousands of dollars over a period of many years.
7-Eleven boasts massive profits and annual sales of $1.1 billion in Australia alone. It is now clear that a big chunk of their profits are coming from the unpaid wages of their workers. UNITE is campaigning to organise 7-Eleven workers as the best way to put an end to their dodgy behaviour.
The problem is that it seems the Workplace Ombudsman is reluctant to prosecute employers who break the law. For example, despite the fact that it was proven that Video Dogs were acting illegally, they did not face any fines or penalties.
It is common practice that if an employer co-operates with the Ombudsman, and fixes the problem quickly, they can escape penalties. In other words ignorance is a legitimate defence for dodgy bosses!
This shows the class bias of the capitalist system where ordinary people are fined for the most trivial of things but employers who steal money from workers rarely ever see the inside of a courtroom let alone a jail cell.
This means that without the threat of industrial action from the workers there is no real incentive for bosses to adhere to the law. They can just claim that they didn’t know any better and fix the problem if and when they get caught.
Young workers need to do more than just rely on the Workplace Ombudsman if they want to protect their rights at work. The best way to ensure that young workers are not ripped off is to build fighting unions. On that basis we encourage all workers to support the work of UNITE.