Greens want a Royal Commission on shop union deals

Joe de Bruyn, SDA President, during the ALP National Conference at the Melbourne Convention Centre on Sunday 26 July 2015. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Joe de Bruyn, SDA President, during the ALP National Conference at the Melbourne Convention Centre on Sunday 26 July 2015. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

A Royal Commission was needed to get to the bottom of the cosy deals between Labor's biggest private sector union and retail and fast food employers, according to the Greens..

The agreements struck by the conservative shop assistants' union have cost workers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost penalty rates, saving big employers, including McDonald's, Coles and KFC as much as $300 million.

The Greens were responding to a Senate inquiry on penalty rates, which was prompted by a 12-month Fairfax Media investigation revealing how the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) deals left more than 250,000 workers paid less than the award, the wages safety net.

The Labor-chaired committee, which tabled its report on Wednesday, made just one recommendation - that the government legislate to overturn the Fair Work Commission's controversial decision to reduce Sunday penalty rates for fast food, retail and hospitality workers.

While the Greens and Nick Xenophon Team supported the recommendation, the Coalition did not.

In its dissenting report which rejects the call to overturn the Fair Work decision on penalty rates, the Coalition describes Labor's "hypocrisy" on penalty rates as "breathtaking".

Following the tabling of the report employment minister Michaelia Cash said: "The evidence presented to the Senate inquiry has been clear and overwhelming - under Labor's legislation, big unions and big business cut deals to slash penalty rates, without workers being informed about the deals being done."

Senator Nick Xenophon moved for the inquiry in June saying the sweetheart enterprise agreements have given big business an unfair advantage over smaller retailers who adhered to awards.

The Senate Education and Employment References Committee has six voting members including three Labor, two Coalition and one Green. Committee chair Gavin Marshall has a casting vote. The Nick Xenophon Team has two non-voting members.

Senator Marshall's majority report is notable for its failure to address the key issue that triggered the inquiry - the SDA deals.

In comments additional to the majority report, Senator Xenophon and party colleague Stirling Griff, criticise the committee's failure to demand more detail from the SDA about the millions of dollars it pays major employers each year, ostensibly for the cost of handling payroll deductions for members.

These "administrative" payments were revealed by Fairfax Media in 2015.

In their additional comments, the Greens describe the SDA's pay and membership deals with employers as a "scandal".

Greens industrial relations spokesman Adam Bandt said the inquiry had shown that the underpayment of penalty rates was a far bigger problem than first thought.

"A royal commission is needed to get to the bottom of it," he said.

However it seems unlikely a Coalition or Labor government would support such a call. The SDA was notably excluded from the terms of reference for the Abbott government's trade union Royal Commission that reported in late 2015.

The conservative "shoppies", the largest private-sector union in the country, and the ALP's biggest union affiliate, is the last bastion of conservative Catholicism in the Australian labour movement.

For decades it has been a powerful force opposing social reforms, including same sex marriage and euthanasia.

But the union has come under sustained pressure for the past two years over inferior workplace agreements that have embarrassed Labor and the ACTU as they campaigned against the Fair Work Commission landmark decision on penalty rates. Australia's biggest union, the Nursing & Midwifery Federation, has condemned the SDA deals as "reprehensible".

While the Coalition has slammed Labor's hypocrisy on penalty rates, the Coalition attack has also been muted by its support of penalty rate cuts and, it seems, a reluctance to offend major employers like Coles and Woolworths.

In a separate 2016 decision, the full bench of the Fair Work Commission quashed an agreement between Coles and the SDA because it underpaid workers and failed the "better off overall test" (the BOOT).

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This story Greens want a Royal Commission on shop union deals first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.