Woolworths’ Workers Walkout over Covid19

By Thomas Edwardson  –  Thomas is a worker at MLDC

Workers at Woolworths’ giant Melbourne Liquor Distribution Centre (MLDC) refused to commence the work Monday August 3. One Covid19 case was confirmed on the site the previous week but just six of the approximately 700 workers were sent home to socially isolate.

Over the weekend Woolworths asked workers to perform overtime hours. Many of these workers had not been informed that covid19 was detected in the workplace. Critical of the lack of communication and insufficient cleaning, workers decided that it was unsafe to commence work and refused.

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The stoppage was legally re-enforced when elected health and safety representatives (HSRs) issued a formal cease work notice bringing all work to a halt. The workers and their HSRs demanded that all workers be tested and the shed be closed – with full pay continuing – until test results came back. This is the only way to ensure that no undetected cases of covid19 continue to spread.

Woolworth’s management initially agreed to testing and set up a series of testing tents onsite – but argued that work should continue while waiting for results. The company then sent a message to all workers which implies the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) supports a return to work:

“After consultation and a review with the DHHS [department of health and human services] of the Woolworths processes and actions, the DHHS has confirmed at this time there is no need for any of our team to be self-isolating, unless you have been notified otherwise. You are all fine to continue normal activities and to continue working.”

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has repeatedly said the opposite. For example, he told a media conference on the same day

“there is no alternative to stay at home if you have been tested or have the virus”

The HSRs, the United Workers Union (UWU) organiser, Work Safe and Woolworth’s management entered into negotiations for much of the day. This group – which did not include any of the elected UWU delegates – came to agreement early in the afternoon.

The deal involves, workers returning to work, the company tearing down the onsite testing sites and advising workers to individually get tested offsite if they wish. Full-time workers who get tested a will not be paid while waiting for the results but are forced to use up their sick leave and annual leave. Casual workers waiting for test results will be paid only their base rostered hours, but not for the “flex-up” hours that are routine for casuals in the shed.

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Some of the stock at MLDC.

The testing tents were removed because Worksafe objected to the company policy of test-and-then-work-while-waiting-for-results. However, rather than closing the shed temporarily while encouraging everyone to get tested, Worksafe and Woolworths pushed to reduce. They are making no generalised push for testing but leaving it up to individuals to get tested only if they feel it’s necessary. This is despite the fact that distribution centres are among the highest risk workplaces. It also comes after Woolworths delayed the closure of its Mulgrave fresh food distribution centre in Melbourne in July. The foot dragging resulted in the infection of over 30 workers before the site was eventually closed for cleaning.

However, as a result of the stoppage, the company has agreed to improve cleaning practice at the site. This includes:

  1. Deep cleaning – which the company already claims to do – will now have to be overseen by an independent cleaning provider and verified by a hygienist.
  2. Forklifts, transporters and other machines will now be colour coded according to whether or not they have been cleaned. An unclean machine cannot be used.
  3. Weekly swab testing available for workers.
  4. Truck drivers and contractors will now have to use a separate lunch room.
  5. There will be a weekly consultation and review with the site’s HSRs.

All workers were paid for the stoppage.

Woolworths MLDC site has significantly worse cleaning procedures than some other distribution centres. For example, the Amazon warehouse in the Melbourne’s South East has long enforced a compulsory mask rule, rigid social distancing and ensures all tables and chairs in the tearoom are cleaned after each time they are used.

By contrast, Woolworths extra cleaning at MLDC has so far been minimal. For example, door handles and other high touch surfaces are cleaned just five times per day. It seems the work stoppage today is now forcing MLDC management to take the global pandemic a little more seriously.

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