Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Leading trade unionist argues the case for unions

Joe de Bruyn giving his talk after formal dinner

Speaking at Warrane on Wednesday 27 August 2014, the Senior Vice-President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Mr

, offered students an overview of the kinds of activities unions carry out locally, nationally and globally.

Mr de Bruyn, who is a member of the National Executive of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and National Secretary and Treasurer of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), emphasised that Australian unions are highly regulated and very democratic.

An example of the work that his own union, the SDA, carries out locally was the role it played in convincing McDonalds to allow employees to join unions.

He said that 20 years ago McDonalds had a reputation for only employing young kids and exploiting them. While this was “not entirely true” — in fact McDonalds had looked after employees “in a reasonably professional way” — it was true that it was not open to unions.

But as the company had employed more Australians in top management positions it started to warm to the idea of unions having a presence in its operations.

Four years ago the SDA had negotiated the first national agreement with McDonalds covering all employees around Australia, as well as franchisees. And last year the agreement was renewed for another four years.

“When you go to McDonalds, the person on other side of the counter is on a wage $104 above the minimum wage,” Mr de Bruyn said.

“That is a good rate of pay. We are told that McDonalds workers in Australia are the highest paid in the world in fast food. That’s really saying something. There are now 85,000 people who are all covered by this agreement with the union.”

An example of an issue the SDA was engaging in on a national level involved the move by the Federal Government to impose a tax of 15 percent on superannuation payments for the country’s lowest income workers.

“Generally tax (on superannuation payments) is 15 percent, but for low income workers who earn $37,000 a year or less, the tax was taken away,” he said. “The Government is trying to reimpose it, but the Senate is refusing to pass the legislation.

“This is something that affects 3.6 million workers — the lowest income workers in the country. Whether it is taxed or not over a worker’s working life is worth $27,000. Unions are working very hard to lobby Senate members.”

On an international level, Mr de Bruyn spoke of the work done to improve the poor working conditions for textile and clothing workers in Bangladesh.

“Bangladesh has a very large textile and clothing industry based on cheap rates of labour,” he said. “Often there are no health and safety protections at all. Exits are often blocked with stock, people work under appalling conditions. Increasingly common fires kill and injure many people.

“This has led a global union that covers textile manufacturing to start to negotiate with the retailers in the countries of the developed world who are buying these goods so that they insist upon safer workplaces.

“(At first) the retailers were prepared to negotiate but were not prepared to reach an agreement. But in late 2012 there was a particularly horrific fire in which 112 workers died and 200 were injured. That led to a renewal of negotiations

Then, last year, came the biggest accident of all when a multi-storey building collapsed, killing 1,127 workers and injuring 2,515.

“It was the largest industrial accident in the world since a chemical accident in India several decades ago,” Mr de Bruyn said. “An international body affiliated with the SDA and of which I am the President joined negotiations and still (the retailers in developed countries) were holding out. But after a few more weeks a Swedish company signed up to an agreement, then 25 companies, and now over 150 global retailers, including Big W, Kmart, Target, have signed up.

“Factory inspectors go into each factory and inspect it for safety. The owner of the factory is told: ‘You have to fix up these things’, and if the owner agrees retailers will continue to use the factory.

Otherwise they withdraw business.
“This process of factory inspections now covers 2,000 of the 4,000 factories making clothing for markets of the Western world.”

During the question-and-answer session, Mr de Bruyn emphasised that when unions perform professionally in a workplace it is not only to the benefit of workers, but of employers as well.

He said if disputes involving workers were not settled in a “sensible professional way” a workforce could lose motivation and be less productive and many employers now realised this.

In cases where workers failed to join a union, they may be able to go to a government Fair Work officer to enforce their entitlements. But failing that, they would need to pay a lawyer to represent them — something that could be a costly exercise in comparison with the small cost of union membership.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: List of the annual Bevan Corbett award winners can be viewed here]