Waiting to be served with fairness

Ex-sales staff at a Melbourne shoe shop say they’re still feeling the pinch of exploitation and favouritism months after leaving the store. Dominic Rogers reports.

 Two former sales assistants at a suburban shoe mart allege their ex-boss’s eagerness to maximise profit is risking employees’ safety and violating fair-work laws.

The pair spoke to The Standard on condition their real names not be used, citing fear of prosecution if they were identified.

One, who agreed to be called by the pseudonym Sally Robinson, said she and fellow workers had been forced to forgo common safety procedures when there was an influx of customers.

“There was no time to use the ladder to climb the stock shelves, so we’d climb the shelves themselves. I was so exhausted that I fell.”

Robinson said the fall had left her with severe bruising on the right side of her body which persisted for over two weeks, and that clambering up and down shelves had left other bruises on the palms of her hands.

“I remember the regional manager telling me to get up and keep going because I hadn’t broken anything.”

The shopping-mall store manager, who visited at the start of the Boxing Day shift, had told staff they were not going to get a break, so they needn’t bother asking for one.

At one point the manager bought the staff cheeseburgers from a nearby McDonald’s and told them to get back to work as soon as they’d eaten them.

“I could have taken her to Fair Work Australia,” Robinson said.

It is illegal in Australia for a business to work employees for more than six hours without a half-hour break. Robinson said the retailer often gave employees five-and-a-half-hour shifts because of this.

At peak times, such as the Christmas rush, she recalled, every day brought unforeseen and confronting circumstances, which in a crowded workplace only led to soaring stress levels.

“[We were] like sardines in a can,” said Robinson, who had been hired as a Christmas casual.

Her fellow employee, who asked to be identified as Josh Stevens, confirmed Robinson’s recollection of events and recounted more examples of unfair treatment of staff he said he had witnessed during his time in the store.

“Obviously we didn’t get our breaks we were entitled to because they were more worried about making money,” Stevens said.

The business used its work roster to make more money by exploiting the sales assistants it had hired, he added.

Stevens said the store had taken him on full-time over the Christmas period and promised to retain him in that capacity until mid-February.

Full-timers were paid $5 less an hour than part-timers, but:

“I ended up being full time for just the Christmas period and got kicked off into casual immediately afterwards. My manager just got a bunch of cheap labour for less.”

During 24-hour trade before Christmas, Josh had two shifts eight hours apart. He started at 7am and finished at 8am the following day.

“They didn’t pay me double time for it. You’re supposed to get a 10-hour break between shifts, but I finished at 4 and had to be back at midnight, and I never got the pay.”

Financial inquiries were never followed up, according to Stevens, and this eventually drove him from working at the store.

“If I had issues with my pay, there was no one for me to talk to. I’d ask the manager, and she said she’d contact accounts – but I don’t know if she ever did.”

An assistant manager at the store, who asked to be known simply as Jason, maintained: “We respond to all enquiries within our business. If there are complaints from the staff there are systems in place to make sure we follow them up.”

Stevens said, “They definitely liked to play favourites. Whoever made the most sales would get the most shifts” – an incentive system Jason confirmed, saying all employees were aware this was the case.

Stevens: “I wasn’t getting a lot of shifts, so I wanted to work harder.

Two weeks in a row I had the best average dollar – except when the following rosters came out I had seven hours total, when there were other casuals with 25 hours.

Jason did not comment on particular complaints but said workers often badmouthed employers if they weren’t particularly effective at their jobs.

Stevens: “I was pretty vocal about how upset I was. I told the manager they couldn’t expect much from me at that point.”

Told that Robinson no longer worked at the store either, he said: “Good on her. They don’t really care much about their employees.”

Both Stevens and Robinson asked for their real names to be suppressed for fear of legal repercussions.

Robinson became increasingly reluctant to speak about goings-on in the store. Her explicit fear of angering the retailer was echoed by her former workmate, who said: “I don’t want any of us to get sued.”