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Employees claim embattled Aussie Disposals underpaid them for years

As the iconic camping supplies chain Aussie Disposals fights back from the financial brink, former employees are stepping forward claiming a long history of being short changed on entitlements. Liam Petterson investigates. 

Employees claim embattled Aussie Disposals underpaid them for years

An Aussie Disposals store in Glenferrie Rd, Malvern. Former employees allege a history of underpayments pre-dating the chain's recent financial struggles.

Words by Liam Petterson
 

Former staff of struggling camping supplies network Aussie Disposals, which last month closed one quarter of its storefronts as part of a deal with creditors to haul itself out of voluntary administration, claim they were underpaid by the company for several years.

Five former employees told The Citizen that the company had a history of underpayments going back to 2016, highlighting alleged failures to provide proper payments to night and weekend supervisors, and failing to pay staff for time opening and closing stores and attending meetings or training.

“I was usually there at least 15 minutes before a shift and 15 minutes after closing. Every shift,” said “Jordan”, a former employee who has requested not to be named.

Questioned about claims by former employees that they had been underpaid, Aussie Disposals said in a statement that it was disappointed by the allegations, but that the retailer had provided opportunities “for thousands of team members over the years to not only learn life skills but also to earn money to support them through both secondary school and university”.

Questioned about claims by former employees that they had been underpaid, Aussie Disposals said in a statement that it was disappointed by the allegations, but that the retailer had provided opportunities “for thousands of team members over the years to not only learn life skills but also to earn money to support them through both secondary school and university”.

“Sometimes I was also expected to be there earlier to train a staff member how to open for example, or to ensure staff are arriving on time,” Jordan said.

“This was always asked specifically of me but never with mention of clocking in early to do this.”

Other former staff also claimed they were routinely underpaid when taking on extra duties including managing staff on weekends and holding store keys.

Gerard Dwyer, national secretary of retail union SDA, said that all work-related activities, including training, “which an employee has been directed to undertake should be paid time”.

He characterised the concerns of the former Aussie Disposals staff as the latest in a slew of recent underpayment cases. Aussie Disposals was one of dozens of retail employers the union asked to audit their payrolls in the wake of Woolworths admitting last October that it had underpaid thousands of staff by up to $300 million.

“Underpayment of wages is now an epidemic in Australia,” Mr Dwyer told The Citizen. “For too many companies, underpayment appears to be their business model.”

Responding to written questions detailing the former employees claims, the company did not respond to or deny a list of specific allegations. In a statement, human resource manager and company executive Jamie Padfield said it said it was “disappointing to hear about the allegations of former team members”.

He said that through its operations since 1962, the network of camping supplies stores had provided opportunities “for thousands of team members over the years to not only learn life skills but also to earn money to support them through both secondary school and university”.

Aussie Disposals entered voluntary administration on 14 April, blaming the fallout of drought, the Black Summer bushfires and coronavirus restrictions. A month later it announced it had negotiated a deal with creditors to exit administration, banking on trade through a reduced network of storefronts catering to holiday makers equipping themselves for locally-based, outdoor pursuits as restrictions ease.

Mr Padfield said that the company had closed “approximately 13” of its former network of 36 stores across Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.

Former employees speaking to The Citizen said their concerns around underpayment pre-date the tough environmental and trading conditions of the past year. Some of those concerns were recognised by the company in a letter sent to staff in November 2016 informing them of a decision to commence paying entitlements relating to managerial duties.

The letter from a human resources manager advised staff that the amended wages were the result of “the importance we place on these duties”.

The Citizen understands those affected were not back paid for hours worked prior to November 2016. The company did not respond to a question on this matter.

James Carfax-Foster, who worked for the company between 2016 and 2018, said that employees managing staff on weekends and holding store keys were not paid any extra above their base rate prior to December 2016.

Before becoming a store manager, Carfax-Foster’s responsibilities included closing the store, acting as a supervisor between 5pm and 7pm most nights, and occasionally managing staff on Saturdays. He said he was paid at retail employee level 1, the lowest possible rate under the General Retail Industry Award 2010.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman’s website, duties including “opening and closing of premises” and “supervisory assistance” fall under level 3, while “supervising up to 4 sales staff” falls under level four of the award.

The difference between the levels is less than one dollar per hour, but over time this could have added up to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in underpaid labour for some employees.

Payslips seen by The Citizen confirm Carfax-Foster was bumped up to retail employee level 3 in his first payslip after the November 2016 letter, for hours worked as a night supervisor.

“Aussie Disposals prides and values itself on customer service for both the customer and all team members in which the vast majority past and present would agree,” Mr Padfield said in the statement to The Citizen.

“Whilst we would prefer to have all team members present and past agree with that it is not possible to please everyone.”

Jordan, who was let go during the company’s administration period, was concerned the business’ restructure deal would undermine any possibility of pursuing back pay.

“I’m very worried about paying for the cost of living. I am already at the point where rent is coming out of my savings. I do hope [I’m backpaid], but it’s all so hectic at the moment so I’m not sure where backpay will fall.”

Several former staff also raised concerns about health and safety protocols on the shop floor, claiming they were never taught appropriate techniques for manual handling. This was despite staff being routinely required to load, move and unload large amounts of stock.

“I’ve got a pretty bad back and I think it’s because I was just never taught how to lift stuff properly,” said Jordan.

“For example, we have these massive ladders to reach high stock they are meant to be carried by two people. I was there several years and I never saw two people carry a ladder.”

Carfax-Foster said there was a lack of training in general, but particularly regarding occupational health and safety. This meant staff were doing jobs that were unsafe because they were not taught otherwise, he said.

When staff training sessions and store meetings were scheduled, former employees who spoke with The Citizen confirmed these were not paid.

Failing to pay employees for training and meetings defies Fair Work Ombudsman guidelines on unpaid work which stipulate: “If an employee has to do training as part of their job, they have to be paid the right pay for those hours worked”.

“Employees also have to be paid the right pay for time spent in team meetings or opening and closing the business, if their employer requires them to be there.”

Carfax-Foster also accused the company’s senior management of putting profits above staff welfare.

“The company doesn’t foster a positive atmosphere, it excuses bullying and sexism. I believe most people hang around because of their positive co-workers and some managers or supervisors,” he said.

“As a whole though sales are put much higher than staff wellbeing.”

The Fair Work Ombudsman would not confirm if any complaints had been lodged about Aussie Disposals, but a spokesperson said it “has not taken enforcement action in relation to this business and it is not appropriate for us to comment.”

“We encourage any workers with concerns to contact us directly for assistance.”

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