This year we could be in for a beerless AFL Grand Final, and not just because we left the booze shopping until 11am the day-of. Carlton United Brewery is waist-deep in a dispute with maintenance workers at their Abbotsford brewery, and it doesn’t look like it’s ending any time soon.
Electrical Trade Union organiser Steven Diston, who is involved in the dispute, claims that ‘less than half’ of the usual amount of beer is coming out the factory gate than before. ‘It’s going to be a dry Grand Final,’ he tells us. But worse than not being able to get a pint or a longneck, stable jobs and the working conditions we take for granted in Australia seem to be drying up too.
Just before the Queen’s Birthday weekend, 55 maintenance workers at CUB Abbotsford were rounded up and told they didn’t have jobs anymore, ending their contracts several weeks early. CUB had terminated their agreement with contactor Quant, and engaged a new maintenance service provider. The sacked electricians and fitters were given redundancies and told they had the opportunity to apply for jobs with the new provider.
The trouble was, Steven says, ‘they refused to tell us the actual employing entity or the EBA that the boys would be employed under’. The ETU took CUB to the Fair Work Commission and a week later they got their answers. Catalyst Recruitment (Programmed/Skilled Group) was the employing entity and what were they offering? ‘The award wage plus 50 cents,’ Steven says. It’s approximately 65 per cent less than what they’d previously been earning.
The workers and their unions have been picketing the Abbotsford brewery and Southbank corporate office since. CUB have been bussing in replacement workers to keep production going and say there has been ‘no impact to beer supply’ despite ETU claims.
This is the second time in less than a year that management and workers have locked horns at the CUB Abbotsford brewery. In September last year, CUB put forward a non-union agreement including wage freezes and reduced conditions. Industrial action by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) led to the changes being voted down.
CUB employees are just one of many groups working under large multinationals – in this case, UK-based SAB Miller – who claim they are being exploited and cut off from entitlements through contracting and subcontracting agreements. As the unions involved in the current dispute point out, the lot of workers doesn’t exactly come off as fair when SAB Miller have an operating income of around $4.4 billion, and its CEO Alan Clarke receives a multimillion-dollar annual payout. Memes outlining these facts have been making the rounds for the past month and plaguing the CUB social media pages.
Seven weeks into the dispute, down at the picket line, workers and union reps have made themselves comfy. Steven likens their set-up to ‘a big camping trip’. A couple of trucks are decked out with full-leather recliners, a toilet, a warm fire and a barbecue – some days they even have a spit or smoker going.
As well as donating money to keep the picket going, supporters have been dropping off creature comforts too – from baked goods, doughnuts and chocolate, to beer from rival companies. According to Steven, local brewer Broo donated 100 slabs of their beer to the picket line.
Steven concedes this kind of support for workers from the Aussie public isn’t usually a given, even with our history of unionism. But in this instance, he says, workers and unions ‘well and truly have the moral high ground’.
‘This ticks all of the boxes,’ Steven says. ‘Big multinational buys out iconic, Australian brand; doesn’t pay taxes; pays corporate executives tens of millions. At the same time they’re making huge money, they’re trying to attack the wages of workers. People are sick of it, you know? This sums up and embodies everything that’s wrong with our system at the moment. There’s going to be a dry Grand Final and when that happens, we don’t want people blaming the workers for that. We want to make sure the blame lies squarely with the company.’
Slim Dusty might disagree, but there’s something worse than a pub with no beer – workers stripped of entitlements and rights. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a dispute like this. Steven points out we’re seeing ‘the lowest wage increases in private enterprise [in decades]’, unemployment is high and ‘workers on visas are scared’.
The stats back him up. While the ABS says unemployment sits at 5.7 per cent, the alternate index by Roy Morgan says it’s more like 9.6 per cent (it depends how you view unemployment). The wage price index shows wage growth has declined in recent years and is at its ‘lowest pace’ since the 1990s.
It gets worse for people employed under Temporary Work Visas though. A Senate Inquiry report, A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders, which came out in March this year included a number of submissions detailing exploitation of people on working visas. Submissions claimed people on notorious 457 visas are subjected to a significant ‘power imbalance’ with their employers. Workers ‘dependent on their employers for their ongoing visa status’ are more susceptible to exploitation, ‘as workers are less prepared to speak out if they are underpaid, denied their entitlements, or otherwise treated poorly’.
Steven points out that on top of this exploitation, it’s worth remembering these people cannot vote and aren’t part of the political process. Steven describes the Australian workforce situation as being ‘offshored onshore’, claiming corporate greed is at the heart of it.
‘Whether [it’s] an Australian brand or an international brand, the common denominator just seems to be this unquenchable thirst for profits. Even when they make the profits, they ship them offshore so they don’t pay tax.’
There are numerous examples. Australia Post was raided by the AFP and revealed to be underpaying subcontracted post and parcel delivery drivers, as well as using student foreign labour. In the supermarket sector, suppliers to Coles and Woolworths have been connected to significantly shady behavior: Costa was found to be posting ads for jobs in languages other than English, such as Mandarin, and 80 per cent of the workers responding to such ads were underpaid; while Zerella told workers they’d be replaced by machines or paid less if they joined the National Union of Workers. Another beer company, RedDot Brewhouse, was caught underpaying a Filipino welder by almost $20,000 while setting up a brewery in Melbourne. When caught, the owner said the Australian labour force was ‘too expensive’.
A couple of weeks ago, 640 workers engaged in strike action against Coles contractor Polar Fresh over the casualisation of their jobs and instability of employment. INCI Group, a subcontractor to Spotless, which is contracted by Myer, was revealed to be underpaying and denying entitlements to its cleaners. And last year, of course, there was the 7-Eleven scandal, where foreign workers were found to be owed millions in unpaid wages – estimated to be an average of around $38,000 per person.
‘It’s going on all around us, in every place,’ says Steven. ‘You can literally see it in some of these franchises and chains. There’s no accountability.’
Often when shit hits the fan and exploitation is revealed, the big brands distance themselves from the contracting company and claim they had no idea it was happening. They point to their corporate responsibility pages noting the ‘value’ of their workers, make a statement about how they do their best and say they’re investigating any claims of exploitation. Not only do they screw over workers, they don’t take any responsibility for the companies they contracted.
CUB recently made a statement on their website saying they’d told Quant in January they wouldn’t be continuing their contract with them beyond July. But if this is the case, why did workers only find this out in June?
Usually, when it comes to discussion of responsible drinking, we focus on the immediate health and social effects. But there is space for a discussion of broader social context, too. Steven, the ETU and the rest of the picketers are calling for a boycott of CUB. While some would argue that boycotts aren’t always effective, costing CUB money and getting employees’ jobs back isn’t this boycott’s only aim.
‘They think they’re making an example of us, but we’re actually making an example of them,’ Steven says. ‘We need to make sure that all these multinationals understand, if you come to Victoria, the home of unionism … and you try to destroy us, you try to de-unionise us, you try and bring us down, it will cost you … But the larger message we want to send is that Australian workers should have the right to make a decent living in their own country. It’s not too much to ask.’
Cheers to that.
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