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Strikes to hit Chemist Warehouse as workers seek huge pay boost

Workers at Chemist Warehouse have voted to endorse strike action as part of a bid to win a huge pay rise and greater job security.

If they decide at further meetings to go on strike, supplies of non-prescription goods at the company’s extensive chain of shops could begin running short within days.

The discount retailer has become famous for its ultra-cheap prices and its assault on the traditional pharmacy business model in Australia.

But its workers this week voted to back industrial action at three key warehouses on the east coast of Australia, over a claim for a 25 to 30 per cent pay rise and an increase in the proportion of the workforce that is permanent labour. The strikes could start as early as next week.

The warehouses in Somerton and Preston in Victoria and Eagle Farm in Queensland are crucial in supplying Chemist Warehouse and My Chemist stores across Australia.

National Union of Workers national secretary Tim Kennedy said its members ”pick and ship over a million items per week” to supply Chemist Warehouse stores and online orders.

“If strike action is taken, Chemist Warehouse will struggle to meet customer demand,” he said.

”Our members at Chemist Warehouse are paid 25 per cent less than industry competitors and yet the owners of Chemist Warehouse are worth over a billion dollars,” he said.

Chemist Warehouse director Damien Gance did not comment before deadline.

Strikes have become increasingly rare in Australia and are close to the lowest level on record.

But the NUW has run a number of successful and aggressive industrial campaigns in recent years, including a 2016 strike at Coles supplier Polar Fresh. That led to shortages of chilled food on supermarket shelves and large pay-rises for workers.

The Chemist Warehouse group – which also trades as My Chemist – has skirted industry regulations that restrict ownership of pharmacies to pharmacists themselves and store location rules.

To bypass the rules, Chemist Warehouse operates as a complex franchise network – a web of partnerships between the founding families that own it and individual pharmacists.

But it has also been criticised for its labour practices.

In 2016 it was forced to pay back $3.5 million to nearly 6000 in-store staff after a Fair Work Ombudsman audit uncovered it was underpaying them. The discount chain had not been paying staff for training done outside of work hours.

Workers at its Preston and Somerton warehouses say the big issue is job security with the vast majority of workers on site employed as casuals and labour hire. The union wants at least 70 per cent of workers to be permanent, rather than the current level of about 25 per cent.

A worker at the Preston warehouse, and union delegate, Husain Alqatari, described a culture of intense competition to stay in work.

“There’s hundreds of casuals fighting for limited positions,’’ he said. “You have to work fast, you have to be like an animal. If you don’t reach your target you don’t get your shift.’’

There have also been a number of recent complaints to the Fair Work Commission seeking anti-bullying orders over sexual harassment.

There have been complaints to Human Resources at Chemist Warehouse and a recent meeting between workers and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins over the claims.

Mr Kennedy said the group’s heavy use of labour hire ”has given rise to a culture of exploitation, bullying and harassment – and it’s got to stop.”

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