According to the 2011 Census, more than 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, many have limited English, 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 $433,241 for 528 underpaid trolley collectors at supermarket sites across Australia.
In Melbourne CBD, $7200 was reimbursed to a Middle Eastern trolley collector, who came forward after not being paid for six week’s 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.
Fair Work Ombudsman, Natalie James, said big companies sub-contracting out services on their sites have a responsibility to ensure those contracts do not undercut minimum employee entitlements.
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.”
Observing that the Fair Work Ombudsman deals with the contract trolley services industry more than it would like, James welcomed a commitment from one major service provider, United Trolley Collections (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 the Deed, 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 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.
James says her agency has been concerned about supermarket chains that focus solely on cost when contracting out trolley collection services.
“Simply choosing the provider who offers the lowest price, without looking closer or asking questions about how they can offer such low prices, can potentially expose supermarket chains to reputation damage in the event that the provider turns out to be underpaying their employees or engaging in sham contracting practices,” she said.
“It can also potentially expose individual managers and their company to financial penalties.
“Workplace relations legislation provides a mechanism through which someone other than the employer who is involved in a contravention of workplace laws may be held accountable for the contravention, and subject to penalties.
The Fair Work Ombudsman is increasingly investigating top of the supply chain practices which result in employees being underpaid or sham contracting.
“We are doing this not only because such practices often result in vulnerable employees missing out on basic rights and protections like penalties, overtime, allowances or leave – but also because such practices mean that businesses which are doing the right thing by their employees find themselves on an uneven playing field and can’t compete,” James said.
James says supermarket chains who want to put their hand up and publicly demonstrate their commitment to strong corporate leadership should “have a conversation” with the Fair Work Ombudsman.
“We want to see leadership from the top, a commitment to ethical and moral, as well as lawful practices, and let it become the standard. We need to change the culture – not just a few operators,” she said.
The Fair Work Ombudsman’s new website www.fairwork.gov.au can assist large and small business operators with workplace relations issues.
Similarly, employers can call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94 to speak with an expert adviser.