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Race to the Bottom in the Retail and Service Sectors?

By Denis Bright

As 2020 gets underway, it must not be assumed that populist conservative corporate values have smothered generations of commitment to fair wages and working conditions in Australian workplaces. Where shortcomings exist, unionised workers themselves with support from favourable media coverage should be able to note the good, bad and the ugly in Australian corporate life.

On New Year’s Day 2020 special arrangements were made to compensate wage and salary earners at three key venues that I visited in Brisbane.

Office Works and Woolworths offered a day’s extra leave to compensate workers for their public holiday commitments. Aldi offered penalty rates and at UQ Sport, gym and pool attendants were paid penalty rates of 250 per cent.

Developments in anti-discrimination law offer fringe benefits for the advancement of social justice in the workplace. At a time when most employers still have a preference for non-union labour, trade unions can and should strive to regain majority support as in the teaching, health and transport sectors.

The Harvester Judgement from the High Court in 1907 made Australia a pacesetter in the development of fair wage employment (Waltzing Matilda and the Sunshine Harvester Factory):

In the Harvester Decision, Justice Higgins of the Arbitration Court decided that 7 shillings a day, or 42 shillings a week, was fair and reasonable wages for an unskilled labourer. This became the basis of the national minimum wage system in Australia. It was a ‘living’ or ‘family’ wage, set at a level which would supposedly allow an unskilled labourer to support a wife and three children, to feed, house, and clothe them. By the 1920s it applied to over half of the Australian workforce. It became known as the ‘basic wage’. Additional amounts were paid to more skilled workers, for example an additional 3 shillings to a fitter or other tradesperson. These additional amounts were known as ‘margins’. In the Harvester Decision, a fair and reasonable wage for more skilled employees was for example 10 shillings a day for ‘journeymen’, or tradesmen.

In Ex parte H.V. McKay (the Harvester Decision), Justice Higgins of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court decided to determine what ‘fair and reasonable’ wages were using the following test:

I cannot think of any other standard appropriate than the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilised community. [p.3]

Decades later at the Transfield Factory in Sydney on a visit to Australia in 1986, a youthful-looking Pope John Paul II called for a renewal and a revitalisation of the Harvester Traditions.

Image from

Fortunately for Australia, your most cherished traditions place great value on equality and mutual support, especially in difficult times. The word “mate” has rich and positive connotations in your language. I pray that this tradition of solidarity will always flourish among you and will never be looked upon as old-fashioned.

In juxtaposition, some irresponsible corporate managers are hell-bent on fostering the erosion of fair and cherished Australian values in the retail and distribution sectors.

The practice of working for under-award cash wages continues in some small venues where wage theft is regarded as responsible business management to avoid taxation responsibilities, insurance payments to work cover and state payroll taxes.

As a trade-off, irresponsible employers offer some token perks to casual employees. These might include rough accommodation on farms or perhaps part-payment in food which was not used that evening in the restaurant. The selling line for this corruption was the incorporation of family values as a substitute for workplace laws or even a misapplication of the parable about workers in the biblical vineyard which had nothing to do with pragmatic industrial relations in the modern sense.

Customers have the right to quiz employers if they suspect that sloppy and even corrupt practices are occurring at their favourite retail or service outlets.

A century back Sigmund Freud noted that people under siege would often project their insecurities on vulnerable people in their midst.

In today’s new corporate era small business entrepreneurs in corporate malls might ignore macro-problems like exorbitant rent levels imposed by shopping centre managers or national leaders hell-bent on stripping Australians of their commitment to fair wages and working conditions to focus on the challenges posed by customers from less advantaged suburbs.

Guest workers in Australia could easily assume that such corporate values are the vulgar manners of the mainstream society.

Here Felipe from Sao Paolo in Brazil waits in the shade at Petrie Terrace in Brisbane for his next pizza delivery.

It is disappointing to see new arrivals in Australia working as contractors for multinational food distribution networks for piecework payments which should have been extinguished with the demise of those satanic coal mines and mills in Britain’s first industrial revolution.

The inappropriateness of petit corporate values does not take a break for the holiday season. Everyone can communicate about our daily Australian adventures

I enjoy visiting the Southpoint Shopping Complex in Grey Street, South Brisbane which is one of Brisbane’s new Transport Oriented Developments (TODs) It is adjacent to the platform at Southbank Station. This is a half-billion-dollar property investment with retail outlets, food venues, bars and hotel facilities. It also incorporates some heritage buildings which have a new lease of life for this digital age.

Image: Real Commercial

Because South Point is near transport hubs for buses, trains, the adjacent TAFE College and local private and public state high schools, the centre attracts customers from a wide southside catchment.

Woolworths is clearly the anchor point of the retail outlet. Here casual and permanent employees work in a convivial atmosphere. Their welfare and industrial awards are protected by a high level of union membership with the Shop and Distributive Union (SDA).

One of the more persistent questions to the security guards at Woolworths is about access to the toilet facilities in the adjacent food court.

Contrary to international hygiene practices, the toilet facilities were initially kept closed at weekends. Now, these facilities have been closed for weeks with the lame excuse that maintenance of facilities is still in progress to justify an abandonment of conventional hand-washing practices.

As site managers, at South Point, the multinational conglomerate Knight Frank Australia Holdings Pty Ltd claims a right to open their public toilets only at their discretion as it is a privately owned facility which can over-ride conventional health standards for the consumption of food from takeaway outlets who pay their fair share of rent to the management centre.

Customers are directed by security guards to use the toilets on Platform One at Southbank Station which is less than readily accessible when escalators are out of order and there is no signage to a lift to the station level.

All this seems rather trivial for a major multinational rental agency with vast global resources with an annual turnover that exceeds one trillion Australian dollars from Knight Franks vast commercial, agriculture, real estate and philanthropic sectors.

This philanthropy apparently does not extend to the maintenance of hygienic hand washing in the food court at South Point. Corporate giants at other inner-city venues across Brisbane seem to survive financially while still maintaining clean and adequate toilet facilities.

Corporate advertising from Knight Frank conceals a mean streak in corporate character which surveillance cameras, security guards and regular police visits should be able to handle.

Times are tough for some sections of corporate Australia. Knight Frank Australia Holdings Pty Ltd suffers from falling real wages. The company’s revenue growth and commercial returns have tapered recently. A fee must be paid to gain access to greater details with strategic block-outs on the corporate profiles available to the general public:

The state government comes in for unfair criticism for apologists for the toilet closures throughout December 2019 at Southbank.

Corporate pressure is being placed on the Palasczszuk Government to install electronic gates at Southbank Station. This would involve an outlay of several million dollars to control the arrival of Train People from less affluent Southside suburbs. The rhetoric is similar to Peter Dutton’s concerns about Boat People to swamp the good fortunes of an affluent nation. It is a short step from abandoning our refugee responsibilities to applying this rhetoric against Trainloads of Bogans from Logan, a local authority to the south of Brisbane.

The financial resources of the Palasczszuk Government are being stretched to the limit to complete the cross-river rail project without any subsidies from the federal LNP for a six billion dollar construction project at a time when GST sharing with the state and territories are likely to be moderated in a slowing economy. There is no holding back on federal subsidies for the complementary Brisbane Light Rail Project being developed by the LNP controlled Brisbane City Council.

Perhaps this exercise in citizens’ journalism will encourage everyone to observe and participate to take control of the remnants of social justice from our corporate elites who are becoming more outrageous with every new year of LNP control in Canberra.

Citizens’ journalist Denis Bright checking out the good, the bad and the ugly in corporate society and back-pedalling against unfair wages and working conditions under the false flags of free enterprise and trickle-down wealth agendas.



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  1. paul walter

    Beautiful, Beautiful stuff,

    Will comment some more after dinner.

  2. Ivy

    Denis, Thanks for an interesting article about modern day working conditions.

  3. Jane

    We need to speak up before Australian values of fairness and social justice disappear.

  4. Leila

    Good to hear from Denis’ adventures in Brisbane before we are all in the quarry pits like Karol Vtoyja in Occupied Poland

  5. Win Jeavons

    Years ago I visited Hong Kong while it was still British. We learnrd that the working day could be 12 hours. But what we OBSERVED was that no one hurried in the shops, the assistants in fact moved very slowly. They knew their worth and returned just that. I can see it happening here, the go-slow, the petty sabotage or sly theft. If the boss is stealing, so will the worker. Similarly I was told of the Italian detainees during WW2 . The local farmer said they were put to work for the farmers, paid very little, and he said that was how much work they gave back. Treating workers badly is not only miserable, but bad work practice.

  6. Miriam Possitani

    An interesting article

  7. Patricia

    Win Jeavons. Workers have the ability and the opportunity to sabotage their workplace if they are not treated well.

    It is in both the employer and employees interests and to both their benefits to have a unionised workforce and for all parties to work together to generate good productivity, good profitability and good wages.

    It works in Germany where unions, employers and employees work together to everyone’s benefit.

    It is the neoliberal view that unions are out to take employers for all they can. It is the position of major employers who do not see their workforce as an asset only as an outlay.

    It is not in the interests of either unions or employees to send employers broke and employers who see unions and their unionised employees as the enemy will find that their workers can do a considerable amount of damage to the business without the employer even knowing it until it is too late.

  8. rubio@coast

    Why continue to shop or take services from commercial venues which undermine working conditions? Denis’ article shows that there are many alternative suppliers. Why flock like dump pigeons to support corrupt corporations and rampant tax evasion through the use of sly wage practices here and foreign tax havens abroad?

  9. Chris

    Minimum wages is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

  10. corvus boreus

    I know that the dominant supermarket duopoly are deliberately eliminating rival small business and systematically undermining the conditions of their employees and product providers in a way that is fracturing the fabric of our society to the cynical end of maximising corporate profits, but then again…
    the self-serve checkouts at Woolies are just SO convenient.

  11. rubio@coast

    Thanks for your comment, corvus. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Office Works, Woolworths and Albi all respected the rights of their wage and salary people on New Year’s Day. If readers find that small businesses are not paying correct wages, supporting the bigger retail outlets is surely the way to go.

  12. Fair Go for Awards

    I agree with rubio@coast. The retail supermarket duopoly comes with protection for industrial awards and working conditions. In Ipswich, Woolworth’s moved out of the CBD to Riverlink and the new small businesses in the Ipswich Mall will not survive without a big retail anchor and state government investment in inner-city revitalization to include housing, transport terminals and sporting facilities like a major pool and gym. Ipswich CBD should be opened up to attract the best retail and service anchors which are close to schools and transport. A rail link from Springfield to the Ripley Valley, Yamanto and Southern Cross University would bring life back to Ipswich through the completion of this new southern transport gateway. Having people work for below the award wage rates, will not make Ipswich Great Again. It is a Deep South Solution which has made for second-rate economies in the southern states of the USA.

  13. Standing Tall

    What a sad introduction to Australia. Guest workers slaving in the heat on bicycles to deliver pizzas from multinational companies with a strong commitment to wage theft and tax evasion loopholes that are tolerated by Scott Morrison as builders of the builders of a strong economy on such unjust foundations.

  14. William

    Korean like myself on working visas in Australia must be careful about under award payment.
    Thank you Denis!

  15. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    After 2.5 years these problems are still unresolved.

    Perhaps the problems associated with management at Southpoint will continue to embarrass Brisbane during the Olympics in 2032.

    The arrival of McDonald’s takeaway had added to the hygeine problems at Southpoint Shopping Centre.

    Last weekend, customers and patrons were directed up to Southpoint Station when the toilets were locked on Sunday 7 August 2022. Quieensland Rail should not have to cover for the negligence of the properety managers while high rates of COVID are still occurring in Brisbane.

  16. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    Good to see this old article still generating some interest from readers.

    Its relevance has been reinforced by inclusion of the centre management of Knight Frank Australia Holdings on The Guardian’s list of 168 major Australian corporate declaring no taxable income in 2019-20 on media releases from the Taxation Commission published in The Guardian.

    Tell that to the struggling shop-owners at Southpoint who are striving to cope with their lease contract obligations. Do check out The Guardian Online for 10 December 2021 to see the list of companies involved.

    I doubt if the theft of a few chocoloate bars by high school students has contributed to this problem. Those losses would have been offset by lower cleaning expenses at toilets in the food court with their camera surveillance and absence of signage. At the time, I wrote the article in 2020, the toilets were kept locked.

    Just yesterday, customers who were unaware that toilets existed were asking for directions from retil staff in the absence of signage.

    Knight Frank Australia Holdings generated $133.54 million in revenue that year in this wholly owned subsidiary of Britain’s Knight Frank LLP with an annual global profit of $Aus $166.7 million (96.190 million pounds) at current rates of exchange for the year to March 2020 (

    This is hardly an investment firm for struggling moms and dada in their twilight years but a giant of the global property market.

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