An encouraging aspect of the struggle was solidarity from Cotton On distribution centre workers in Australia

An encouraging aspect of the struggle was solidarity from Cotton On distribution centre workers in Australia

by Phil Duncan

Workers employed in the distribution centre for retail chain Cotton On, which has 80 stores across New Zealand, have beaten back an attempt to mess with their tea-breaks and won some significant gains in pay and conditions.

After the government passed legislation allowing employers to make inroads into workers’ right to tea breaks, Cotton On became a test case in late March. Prime minister John Key stated at the time of the legislation, “will you all of a sudden find thousands of workers who are denied having a tea break? The answer is absolutely not.” Yet this was exactly what employees of the retail chain faced last week when the company proposed to remove tea and meal breaks in its distribution centre in Auckland.

The company’s proposal was not part of its original negotiating position last July but was added after the legislation was passed.

In a statement issued in response to the company’s new demand, Robert Reid, the general-secretary of FIRST union, which represents Cotton On workers, pointed out, “Breaks are crucial on industrial sites because they keep people safe. Worker fatigue is a risk on an industrial site like the Cotton On distribution centre. Removing breaks increases the risk to workers.

“The rationale for removing tea and meal breaks was that some workers do not need them. Cotton On distribution workers not only want their breaks, they need them. Yet this has not stopped Cotton On trying to exploit the new law to its own advantage. This is what the government always intended, an economy where our competitive advantage is poor working conditions.”

The Cotton On attempt to take away the breaks became a big issue on social media and also in the mainstream news.  Cotton On’s website was deluged with criticisms, following news coverage of the issue, and the company was pilloried by the TV3 news-comedy show 7 Days.  In the space of about a week there were at least 50 stories in the media on the issue.

Faced with industrial action and public support for the workers, plus solidarity from Cotton On distribution workers in Brisbane, Australia – the company is currently attempting to prevent unionisation in its Victoria distribution centre – the bosses have retreated.  The first-ever collective agreement between the company and FIRST Union was ratified by the Cotton On workers belonging to the union yesterday (April 1).

The company gave up its attempt to deprive the workers of meal and rest breaks and agreed to wage rises that lift employees’ pay from close to the minimum wage to closer to the suggested ‘living wage’. (The minimum wage is currently $14.75 an hour, while the ‘living wage’ is $19.25.) The contract also includes penal rates for overtime work and provides for redundancy.

In a statement announcing the agreement, Robert Reid thanked the public for their support.

This is a good win for workers.

It has also had a direct effect on some other employers.  For instance, we know that HR people for several large chains have told their bosses to forget it when asked about how their companies could make use of the new legislation.

Other workers organised by FIRST have also been keen to discuss the issue with organisers so that they can mount effective resistance should their bosses try it on.

However, in non-unionised sectors we are more likely to see bosses continuing to try to take advantage of the new legislation to up the rate of exploitation.  And, in any case, there are already workers, often in one-worker situations like small shops and stalls in malls, who don’t have guaranteed toilet breaks, let alone meal and rest breaks.

And what a comment on contemporary capitalism that workers now have to struggle to get and maintain what workers a generation ago regarded as the basic right to a break.

Further reading:
Ways to wreck the tea-break-busting bill 
Low pay, longer hours and less social mobility: welcome to 21st century capitalism in New Zealand 
What is exploitation? 

For an in-depth account of the importance of this whole sector of workers, see The importance of circulation workers in 21st century capitalism

Also check out our collection of articles on The state of the working class in New Zealand today

  1. Thomas R says:

    It’s an interesting example to me in part due to the massive amount of public backlash as well. NZ will stomach a lot of shit cause heaps of us have never experienced better union deals than what we have now anyway.. but there is still a line that employers have more trouble crossing. Good to see.

    That is a massive pay rise too, good stuff.

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