Australia : Coles fears rotting and spoilage as striking staff picket warehouses
Hundreds of workers at Coles supermarkets' cold storage warehouse in Victoria have walked off the job indefinitely, threatening to disrupt the supply of meat, dairy and fresh produce in stores statewide.
Wednesday morning's mass walkout has forced a total shutdown of the Polar Fresh warehouse in Melbourne's west, where crowds of workers are picketing the site.
And the industrial action appears to be spreading, with Coles claiming union members have also begun illegally picketing "contingency sites" across the state, putting expensive fresh food supplies in jeopardy.
"This is placing millions of dollars of fresh food grown and produced by Victorian farmers at risk of rotting and spoilage," a Coles spokeswoman said.
"Unlawful picketing of the contingency sites unrelated to the Polar Fresh dispute threatens to disrupt the distribution of fresh food for customers in Victoria and will harm other businesses unrelated to the negotiations."
The strike, by more than 640 workers, is an escalation of the latest industrial feud to erupt over the issues of casualisation and insecure work in Australia.
The warehouse workers and their union have hit out at the company for what they say is a "model of under-employment" at Polar Fresh, which leaves many battling to get by due to uncertain rostering, short shifts and fluctuating pay.
Ross Hibble, who is one of about 200 labour hire casuals at Polar Fresh, said he and his co-workers were pushing for the creation of more full-time jobs and more predictable rosters.
"I can start off a week with four shifts rostered, and then I can end up with one and a half shifts," he said.
"Sometimes I get a text when I'm driving into work saying my shift has been cancelled, and if I go to work I won't be paid."
The Polar Fresh warehouse stores all the dairy, produce and ready-retail meat for Coles stores across Victoria.
Some suppliers have told Fairfax Media they are already being forced to reschedule stock delivery to the cold storage facility, and there are fears the strike will affect availability of stock on supermarket shelves if it continues.
Mr Hibble said his weekly wage was usually between $380 and $400, depending on how many shifts he was allocated.
"Last financial year, I made 27,000," he said. "It puts enormous pressure on people like me. I often have to rely on handouts from friends to pay rent and pay bills."
National Union of Workers secretary Tim Kennedy said the dispute was the culmination of years of struggling with the problems with under-employment and the rampant use of labour hire at the warehouse.
He said the company's employment model was an example of how outsourced workforces are being "commoditised" by insecure work, unable to predict their earnings or accrue leave.
"There is a whole part of our community that is unable to secure housing, build lives, educate their children and have good middle-class lifestyles and lifestyle choices," he said.
"These casual workers out here - doing very tough, physical work in a cold environment - are having to struggle to survive off short shifts."
The NUW is expected to meet with Polar Fresh management at the Fair Work Commission on Wednesday.