Workers at Melbourne’s Toll Warehouse Unite Against COVID-19

Patrick Fitzgerald

When managers at a major retail warehouse in Melbourne concealed information on the spread of COVID-19 among the workforce, casual and permanent workers united to walk off the job. The result was a powerful victory in the fight against unsafe conditions.

Inside the Toll Kmart warehouse in Truganina. Photo: Google Maps

Interview by
Sukanya Ananth

Over the last decade, logistics workers in Melbourne’s north and west have bucked national trends toward low industrial militancy. Workers at warehouses servicing some of Australia’s largest retailers — Coles, Woolworths, Dan Murphy’s, BWS, and Chemist Warehouse, to name a few — have organized and struck time and again.

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, retail demand surged as people stocked up on groceries or set themselves up to work from home. Warehouse workers stepped up to the challenge — without them, shelves would have emptied in days. As shops closed, online shopping took off, placing logistics networks under further strain. There is no doubt that warehouse workers are essential. Yet they have not been treated with the respect they deserve.

Since June, it has become clear that the majority of Victoria’s second coronavirus wave has been transmitted at work. Employing hundreds of workers, often across overlapping shifts, warehouses are especially vulnerable. In fact, next to aged-care facilities and slaughterhouses, warehouses have been hit the hardest.

This problem has been compounded by negligent or callous employers, who have in some cases refused to implement even the most basic measures to prevent the virus from spreading. In opposition to this malign neglect stands the 150,000-member-strong United Workers Union (UWU; formed in a 2019 amalgamation between United Voice and the National Workers Union).

Since March, UWU has led twelve industrial disputes over health and safety, many of them centered around warehouses. In March, managers at a Coles distribution center would not facilitate social distancing or supply PPE — and eighty workers walked off the job. In August, a Woolworths liquor distribution center refused to shut down for deep cleaning after a confirmed COVID-19 case. It was only closed after a health and safety representative elected by workers issued a direction to cease work, allowing hundreds of workers to walk off the site.

Most recently, on Friday, August 7, close to 300 workers in Truganina, in Melbourne’s west, followed suit. Their warehouse, run by the Toll Group, is a major distribution center for Kmart. In an industry with low pay and widespread casualization, Toll is one of the most ruthless employers, often employing staff via labor-hire agencies in order to sidestep their legal responsibilities. After trying and failing to intimidate the casual workers, who make up nearly half the workforce, Toll held out for just one day before giving in to the workers’ demands.

United Workers Union (UWU) organizer Sukanya Ananth spoke to Patrick Fitzgerald, a long-term UWU activist and elected delegate about how the walkout was organized and how it succeeded. It serves as a powerful illustration of what can be achieved when permanent and casual workers unite to fight for a safe and fair workplace.

Sukanya Ananth

What precipitated the safety action you took on site? How had Toll failed to provide safe working conditions?

Patrick Fitzgerald

A worker tested positive on site, but our employer wouldn’t tell us where they had been working, or which parts of the warehouse had been deep cleaned. So anxiety levels on site were sky-high; everyone was purposely kept in the dark so Toll could downplay the situation.

On the day that the positive case was discovered, we were told to go home an hour early. We held a toolbox meeting on the same day, and we told our managers that they were in breach of health and safety laws. They couldn’t keep us in the dark about where the case was, or about how many people might have come into contact with the virus.

It was a real cloak-and-dagger experience. It was horrible for us as union delegates, too. Workers were distressed — but thanks to Toll’s secrecy, we weren’t able to answer their questions. The next day, approximately twenty to twenty-five permanent workers didn’t show up to work. They essentially said, “Bugger that, I wasn’t told anything about the risk to my safety, so I’m not coming in.”

What really set us off was when we found a list of all the casual workers on site with the words “COVID-19” next to approximately eleven names. When we asked Toll what it meant, they first claimed not to know anything. They turned around to us and said, “Well, they’re not employees of Toll.” They just didn’t care. They didn’t want to talk about them because they were labor-hire workers, and not directly employed by Toll.

The day after the outbreak, we had a meeting to find out more about the risk of workplace transmission. It was a phone hook-up between the union and the Toll head office. They gave us nothing. The meeting went around in circles for an hour as they refused to tell us anything about how many workers had been potentially exposed, which areas of the site had been deep cleaned — we got nothing.

We decided we weren’t going to keep putting ourselves at risk. Anxiety and paranoia were running rife through the site; it was a really horrible situation to be in. People who were genuinely concerned about their lives and the lives of their families were coming up to me, as their delegate, with questions. But because of the employer’s wall of silence, we didn’t have any answers. The managers separated themselves from us — they were all working from home while we were in there, working hard every day to keep the place moving.

After the union meeting, the elected health and safety representative (HSR) signed a cease-work order. This is a power that HSRs have under workplace safety legislation. It means that the workplace is unsafe: until the employer fixes the issue that created the risk, no one will work.

Once the order had been issued, we told the employer. Then we announced it to all the workers. I walked around the warehouse informing everyone that a cease-work order had been issued and that legally, we could stop work.

Sukanya Ananth

Recently, there has been a growing awareness of the fact that casual and precarious work is accelerating workplace transmission of the coronavirus. Your site has a strong tradition of pushing for casual workers to be converted into permanent employees. As a delegate, you know the real cost of precarity for workers — did the safety risk posed by casual work play on your mind?

Patrick Fitzgerald

Absolutely. As delegates, we refused to induct new labor-hire casuals because we didn’t know which sites they had previously worked at. This is a highly unusual step for us to take. We have a strong culture of supporting casuals on site and pushing for them to be converted to permanent positions.

The decision reflected our concerns over the risk of transmission. By its nature, labor-hire casual work is itinerant. Labor-hire staff have to work across multiple sites to make a living income. And news was starting to emerge that casual workers who were struggling to find enough work across different sites were inadvertently spreading the virus. Meanwhile, management were piling on more casual workers. Having to refuse to induct them was a horrible situation to be in, especially because it wasn’t the casual workers’ fault.

Working at these large warehouses, you really get the feeling that everyone is just an economic digit. This is especially true with the casual workers, who basically have no rights. Casual workers are the most vulnerable — that’s how they became vectors of transmission. Even on our site, if casual workers don’t turn up to a shift, they can lose their job.

We warned Toll time and time again that casuals will come to work, sick or not, because they’ve got mortgages and bills and they’ve got to put food on the table, just like everybody else. By exposing how vulnerable casual workers are, this pandemic has shown just what a horrible state we have gotten ourselves into as a society.

Sukanya Ananth

Could you explain more about how casual workers are vulnerable on site?

Patrick Fitzgerald

Well, they don’t have any access to sick leave. But it goes beyond that — they’ve really got no rights. You’ve got to fight like hell against these labor-hire companies. It’s so easy for them to give workers the sack. If you’re a casual worker, you can’t take time off. If you do, it’s a mark against your name. This is the case even when casual workers take time off because they’re not feeling well. Casual workers aren’t treated like people. They’re just economic units; they’re dispensable.

We’ve always had a lot of casual workers on our site. Last year, there were approximately 178 casual workers to 158 permanent ones. Most of those casual workers are employed through labor-hire agencies. It’s been a hard fight to get a minimum number of permanent jobs included in our enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA). At the moment, a minimum of 140 permanent workers must be employed on site. Beyond that, it’s an absolute circus to have anyone else converted from a casual to a permanent position.

We’ve had situations where casual workers have just disappeared from site. Imagine someone you’ve been working with for months is gone one day, fired without due process. We’ve also had to fight like hell for casual workers’ basic rights, like access to union reps at meetings. I tell you, when it comes to casual workers, basic legal rights go out the window.

I’ve been a casual worker myself. I know just how vulnerable it makes you feel. You feel like you can’t say anything or enforce the rights you know you have, because your manager has the power to decide whether or not you’ve got work the next day. And if you’re a labor-hire casual worker, it’s common to move between sites or to work multiple jobs. How many bosses can one person fight? And it’s always a fight, wherever you go.

Just before the coronavirus outbreak, Toll started absolutely piling hundreds of casual workers on — each more desperate than the other to have work. Our warehouse has more than 300 workers, which is pretty common in the industry. So you can see how workers who are being moved from site to site would be interacting with huge numbers of people. When they started bringing large numbers of labor-hire casual workers in, we lost all power to limit exposure.

When we found that list with “COVID-19” next to some casual workers’ names, we asked Toll about it. They tried to twist it around and put it back on us, asking, “Are they employees of Toll?” over and over again. They shirked their responsibility to those workers, and told us to speak to the labor-hire company, the actual employer, about the issue. But why should we? We’ve been working side by side with the casual workers all year. They’re doing the same work as us, for the same employer.

It’s clear as day — Toll couldn’t care less about the health and safety of workers. But if a casual worker is late by fifteen minutes even once, the employers say that this isn’t the kind of person they want in the “Toll family.”

Sukanya Ananth

A cease-work direction, when issued by the HSR on site, means that everyone in the workplace, regardless of whether they’re directly employed or not, can stop work.

Did the cease-work direction help give casual workers the confidence to join the permanent workers in the walkout?

Patrick Fitzgerald

Some did. But casual workers are so vulnerable that even when they have a legal right to stop work because it’s not safe, they can be intimidated. The bosses were standing over them, threatening that they wouldn’t be given any more shifts if they walked off. That’s how bad it is.

When I walked around the warehouse telling workers about the cease-work direction, people started to leave. So management got on the PA system and threatened everyone with disciplinary action. It got really ugly. Managers blocked the exit points. As workers attempted to leave an unsafe workplace, they were told they would get fired. Then, representatives from the labor-hire agency arrived and told the casual workers that if they walked out, they wouldn’t be given any more work.

The casual workers were copping so much abuse; there was so much confusion throughout the site. About fifty or so casual workers had already walked out before they were physically turned back around. I was on the floor, rounding people up and explaining their rights to them. But it’s one thing for me to tell them that they have the right to stop work — and another thing entirely when the people paying their wages tell them to go back to work, or else.

At one point, I was speaking to one casual worker who wanted to walk out. Three managers came over to tell them to stay. The bullying that went on was the worst I’ve ever seen. It was really disgusting — and hypocritical. While we’re working under the same roof as 300 other people, management can sit safe at home.

On the day shift, all of the permanent workers stopped work. The casual workers wanted to join them, but by then the damage had been done. That being said, some of the casual workers were just so brave. They stopped work despite all the abuse they were receiving.

I’ll never forget it — there was one young woman who was absolutely petrified. But she saw the importance of what we were collectively doing, and she wanted to hang in there and stand firm. Her manager was standing over her, threatening her with disciplinary action and termination. So, some of the workers and I formed a sort of motorcade around her to shield her from the abuse. It was horrible that it came to that. But we helped her walk off — it was incredible.

Once the morning shift had walked off, we stood around at the gate. When the afternoon shift workers started pulling in, no one crossed the gate to go into work. None of the casual workers went in either, even though the managers were yelling at them to come in.

Once we took a stand against management, it created a snowball effect. It was really powerful. Seeing all of us from day shift standing at the gate built the confidence of the afternoon shift workers — they refused to come in to work.

Sukanya Ananth

So Toll agreed to meet your demands once it became clear that they couldn’t bully or threaten you back to work?

Patrick Fitzgerald

Yeah, we won. We weren’t asking for much, mind you. We were asking the company to tell us if there were any cases on site, which workers they had come into contact with, and which areas were cleaned. Really, we just wanted transparency.

As a result, WorkSafe came in and ordered Toll to consult with us. Now, that’s happening at all Toll sites across the country. Before we took the action, it wasn’t. So our action had a positive roll-on effect.

The WorkSafe inspector threw the health and safety legislation at Toll, pointing out that they hadn’t met their duty of care to us. WorkSafe found that we had reason to be worried.

But ultimately, we won because we had good HSRs, good delegates who showed strong leadership, and workers who were prepared to back themselves. But it didn’t hurt to have WorkSafe back us up as well. It was like the cavalry arriving, to bolster everyone’s spirits. Within ten minutes of WorkSafe turning up, we knew that we had been vindicated.

Everyone who walked out the gate was paid for the day. The afternoon shift workers were all paid for the additional time until they started work — which didn’t happen until Toll agreed to our demands.

Sukanya Ananth

That’s a huge win — do you think it will open up bigger opportunities? Can strategies that focus on health and safety organizing help to make further gains in the workplace?

Patrick Fitzgerald

None of us knew what a cease-work direction was before this. But now, all union reps should be educated about this, as a tactic. I can think of many issues in the past that could have been resolved quicker and more effectively if we had understood cease-work orders.

We could have used this tactic during the bushfires, when our site was filled with smoke. We tried to negotiate, asking the employer to let us go home. But you know that cliché about negotiation? Unless you can back it up, negotiation is no different to begging. Well, it’s true. So, this is how we back ourselves up: with action.

If we’re pushing the health and safety wheelbarrow, we can’t lose. You can’t trade safety for anything. At other sites, there have been trade-offs in EBA negotiations. We’ve avoided that at our site and kept our EBA strong. But I’ve heard from other workers and seen it elsewhere. You end up making compromises, trading conditions for wages, or one protection for another entitlement. It’s not the same with safety — this is why it’s a major weapon for workers.

Sukanya Ananth

Has the action strengthened the union on site?

Patrick Fitzgerald

It did, but we have a lot of work to do. The action showed everyone, especially the workers, our own power. This is true even for those of us who’ve been around a while, and have been through some difficult EBA negotiations. This was a different way for us to exercise our collective power.

But for us to be a stronger site, we have to do something about casualization. We’ve got a lot of casual workers who have been here for a long time. They’ve been in a terrible situation long before COVID-19. Everyone keeps harping on about this 25 percent loading nonsense [workplace law stipulates that casual employees receive 25 percent additional pay]. It’s meant to compensate for being a casual worker.

Whoever believes this argument should come to our site to see where 25 percent on top of our wages gets you. Absolutely nowhere. Casual workers are second-class citizens. They’ve got nothing. And let me tell you, it ain’t no choice to be a casual worker. You’re just a unit. You’re picked up and spat out — you’re used, and you’re treated badly. And you can’t do anything about it because the precarity of living shift to shift, and the fear of losing that next paycheck, keeps your head bowed and your eyes looking down.

Labor-hire agencies play God with casual workers. If you’re permanent, you’ve got some protection and leverage, because getting rid of you costs the employer something. As a casual worker, it’s a different ball game entirely. They can get rid of you in the blink of an eye. At a site as big as ours, you can disappear without any of your colleagues knowing.

We’ve worked really hard to build a strong union on site. Our EBA ensures relatively good conditions. But it’s just so hard to break past the barrier of insecurity, because of the churn through workers. When the boss can get rid of workers on a whim, without any financial pain, it creates a huge turnover.

I was looking at the figures with my organizer the other day. We’ve had nearly 1,100 people move in and out of the site in just a couple of years. These people have all been moved or have left to find a job that actually helps them make ends meet. Or worse, they’ve gotten the flick without anyone knowing.

So, while we’re a strong site, we’re not a happy site. Everyone in the media is saying we’re just lucky to have a job. They’re kidding. We’re not lucky — we work really hard for it. We get up every day at 4:30 in the morning to start our shift at 6. And we’re not earning much more than JobKeeper [the federal government wage subsidy]. In the middle of a pandemic, we’re going into work with 300 other people, absolutely freezing in the winter cold, moving boxes in and out the door to meet delivery times. And we’re being pushed hard the whole time.

We have to work on Saturdays just to earn a living. And the casual workers have it a lot worse — the employers keep finding new and creative ways to deny them a living wage. It used to be the case that they would only put casual workers on the roster for four hours at a time. So, four hours into our shift, the first set of casual workers would be marched out and the next lot marched in. The employer did this just to avoid paying them for smoke breaks. We’ve fixed that issue, but the underlying issue of precarity hasn’t gone away.

Where health and safety are concerned, the employer is doing things a lot better now. But that only happened because we put them on notice. And because we won, there’s hope that we can win more, even during a pandemic. If we want to build strong, organized workplaces with lasting power, we need to get rid of insecure work.

Sukanya Ananth

Do you also see a broader opportunity for the union movement to confront insecurity — whether by exercising industrial power, or by using health-and-safety tactics like cease-works?

Patrick Fitzgerald

We have to do something if we want unions to be relevant. As a casual worker, if you’ve only got a hundred bucks in your pocket at the end of the week, you need to have a reason to take money out of those very meager earnings and give it to the union. A lot of the casual workers, as soon as they get a permanent job, they immediately sign on the dotted line and join the union. So it’s not that they’re not prepared to join or don’t want to — it’s up to us to show them how we can fight for them.

The virus, in a weird way, did the groundwork for us. Everyone now understands how bad things have become, and there’s a lot of momentum to wind back casualization. People everywhere are starting to recognize that there are so many casual workers that society has left on the scrap heap. So this is our moment to fight for something bigger than before — we have to act, and it has to be now.