The struggle of the invisible essential worker

Many of us take the convenience of buying groceries from supermarkets for granted and wouldn’t think twice about how those goods got there, or who may have helped get them there. It’s out of sight, out of mind.

However, the tens of thousands of warehouse workers across the country who are undertaking back-breaking and gruelling work to get those groceries there have come to understand how important they are. Sebastian – a pseudonym for a Coles’ distribution centre worker – says that, before the coronavirus pandemic, many warehouse workers thought their job was pretty mundane and were just in it for the financial reward, without much enthusiasm. 

If you’re on the ‘pick’, that means you’re picking heavy boxes of groceries all day, often weighing over 15 kgs each. You’re listening to a headset which tells you where to go, which products to pick and how many. Then you go to that location and put those items on a pallet for a store. You then confirm your pick with the headset and wait for the next instruction; and repeat – over, and over, again. Workers can pick over 1500 kgs of goods in one day, equivalent to the weight of a small car. According to Sebastian, they go home ‘totally wrecked’, with sore shoulders, sore knees and a sore back. The job takes a huge physical toll, with many sustaining injuries. Everyone understands that there’s only so long they can do this job before their bodies will give in.

Even though the nature of the work remains the same, the warehouse workers’ perception of themselves has changed with the arrival of coronavirus. Those that may have absented themselves occasionally, are now turning up to work. Sebastian says:

‘Now we know we’re essential, we know our skills are really valuable, we know we gotta turn up to work so people get fed. Now there’s a sense of urgency and commitment. We’ve gone from pawns to queens.’

Despite their growing sense of pride and understanding of their own importance, these workers face an invidious paradox: their company has continued to pretend that they are invisible and dispensable. Nothing illuminates this more than the disparity between how the company has responded at its public-facing stores – where customer perceptions are critical – versus how it has responded at its out-of-sight warehouses. At the stores, customers have seen Perspex screens and sanitiser at checkouts, floor-markings to outline appropriate physical distance, a surplus of signs, and staff wearing gloves and masks; whereas at the out-of-sight warehouses, Coles was ‘slow to react [to the coronavirus], and reluctant to take on change.’ 

This, is notwithstanding the fact that the risks of contracting the virus are the same as at the stores, where people like Sebastian are ‘going to work every day with 500-700 people who have been down the same aisle, using the same machinery, touching the same goods, and are putting ourselves out there to feed the public’. It’s not a stretch to imagine a warehouse potentially becoming a coronavirus hotspot – as was the case for the Qantas baggage handlers in Adelaide – placing not only the workers themselves at risk but also their families and households, and potentially causing a massive disruption to supply.

Yet it took Coles fourteen days to buy sanitiser, all while the company was making huge profits from panic-buying. Initially management seemed more interested on getting the goods out to meet the astronomical demand than on enforcing physical distancing in the workplace. When the sanitiser finally arrived, it was not placed at common touch points such as the entry turnstiles or on machinery that is shared. Only one wipe was provided to each employee for their machines, no deep-cleaning took place, and the headsets – which are worn close to mouth, nose and eyes – were not being properly sanitised and cleaned. 

All the while, Sebastian and his co-workers were pleading with management to take swift and decisive action, backed by the health and safety representatives, the union delegates and the union. But management – especially senior management – were detached from the situation, with many having the luxury of working from home. In what has been a classic ‘emperor with no clothes’ moment, those managers, along with all the other high-paid executives, lawyers, accountants, and consultants held in high esteem by some sections of society, are now seen as entirely non-essential by the workers. Management failed to grasp their sudden fall from grace, as they naively thought that they could ignore the workers and their requests for basic safety measures for two weeks.

The health and safety reps used their powers under the OHS Act to call a cease work, whereupon the workers left the warehouse for the safety of the car park. When local management got wind of this, they tried to suppress the action with intimidation. Workers were physically restrained from leaving, while others on their way to work were forced to go in. They were told the action was unprotected and threatened that they could lose their jobs. Despite the threats and intimidation, over 200 workers stuck together and ceased work for six hours. 

Senior management recognised the severity of the problem and engaged in discussions with the health and safety reps, union delegates and union officials. The workers were able to secure some good improvements, with the company committing to release health and safety reps on paid time to ensure enforcement of the 1.5-metre physical distancing rule, the placement of sanitiser at more locations, the supply of more wipes provided along with proper cleaning of headsets and the deep-clean of machinery, as well as commitments to purchase thermo-guns so that workers can be tested for symptoms of coronavirus prior to entry.

With the wind in their sails from this success, along with a growing understanding of their importance, workers are now setting their sights on some more ambitious goals. They’re asking for two weeks special paid leave in the event that they are required to isolate due to coronavirus, or care for a member of their family due to coronavirus infection. They see this, like Coles’ competitor Woolworths did, as not just an entitlement issue but also a safety issue, because – as Sebastian says – if workers

‘don’t have any entitlements, don’t have special leave, and can’t financially cope with not working, then that’s a very dangerous place to be in because they’re going to come to work.’

Given the level of danger they are facing, Coles’ workers also seeking danger money in line with what is being provided to essential workers in the United States. They know that the company needs to look after them because ‘if they don’t look after us, then we can’t look after the broader picture’. And they know Coles can afford to provide better pay and entitlements. But – as with basic safety measures – it’s not going to come without a fight. 

Matt Toner

Matt Toner is Director of the Warehousing team at the United Workers Union.

More by Matt Toner ›

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  1. Great article Matt and Seb , this shows the power of the OHS reps and the union they used their power to keep their work mates safe while still getting the job done.
    Hopefully Coles now give them the respect they deserve ✊

  2. Thanks for this, Mat, and thanks and congratulations to you all. Here’s hoping this will see an ongoing rise in union membership. This is the kind of good news story that needs to be circulated so people can understand the good work that is done by unions, and the success of collective action.

  3. Well put together. A very engaging piece of writing. It does need a wider audience. This story shows what working people can do when they act in solidarity and get on the front foot. On that note, we can already see that the conservative will use the current crisis as an opportunity to strip back workers rights and conditions. Any push back from progressive organisations will be met with claims of self interest and costing jobs by conservative forces.

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