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Woolworths faces possible worker strikes, battles activist shareholders

wooliesWoolworths is facing a fight with the National Union of Workers (NUW) on the streets and in the Board room, as warehouse support staff negotiate new workplace agreements.

The NUW has lodged applications with the Fair Work Commission (FWC) for the right to take industrial action at four sites in NSW and Victoria, which could see as many as 2000 staff walk off the job in the coming weeks.

Staff at the centres still have to vote on whether they will agree to go on strike, but NUW organiser Dario Mujkic said workers are “ready and willing” to undertake industrial action. Mujkic said negotiations with Woolworths are ongoing, but that there had been no movement on a push to increase worker pay by $2 per hour.

Current wages range from low-to-mid $20 to low-to-mid $30 per hour depending on the centre, Mujkic said. Workers are also negotiating redundancy packages after Woolworths notified them that its Broad Meadows distribution centre will close in the next 12 – 18 months to be replaced by a “highly automated” warehouse.

“The company aren’t taking us and our members seriously at the moment,” Mujkic said. “We’re making progress in each of the negotiations on the smaller items that we’re talking about, but we’re making no headway whatsoever on the more important issues – wage increases and job security, certainly stalled in relation to those issues.”

“For our members in Broad Meadows it’s really important that they secure the best possible rights and entitlements to redundancy payments, but also rights to relocate to other parts of the Woolworths business. For our members in other DCs that are not set to close this decision to close the Hume warehouse really shows the uncertainty of their future,” he continued.

The NUW is expecting a response from the FWC in the next 3 – 4 weeks on what could be a short-stoppage of work over a few hours or an indefinite strike. A Woolworths spokesman said the company was negotiating with staff.

“We will continue to work with our team members and their chosen representatives to get the right outcome at each of our sites,” he said. “Our number one priority will remain our team members and the service to our customers.”

AGM disruption

Meanwhile, Inside Retail has learned that the NUW has worked with a small cohort of activist Woolworths shareholders to bring a proposal to the supermarket giant’s upcoming AGM that’s intent on shining a light over the potential “adverse human rights impacts” of the company’s operations.

The group of 106 shareholders, whom together hold around 0.0097 per cent of shares on issue, have put forward a motion that would enable shareholders to pass resolutions expressing opinions or making recommendations about the management of the business. They hope to use that resolution to pass a subsequent motion that would put pressure on Woolworths’ Board to produce an annual human rights impact report.

The move is being supported by the Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), which said that Australia’s approach to corporate democracy was inadequate compared to best practice in countries like the UK, US, New Zealand and Canada in a letter attached to the AGM notice.

“The Constitution of our company is not conductive to the right of shareholders to place resolutions on the agenda of a shareholder meeting,” the ACCR said. “In our view, this is contrary to the long-term interests of our company, our company’s board, and all shareholders in our company.”

Woolworths has recommended shareholders vote against the proposal, saying that any such reform should include an “appropriate framework” for companies to deal with requests to “ensure that the resolutions are not used by groups of shareholders to dominate AGMs in the pursuit of specific philosophical or ideological objectives.”

“The directors note that Australian company law provides a range of ways in which shareholders can convey their opinions to a company or the directors about the management and strategic direction of the company,” Woolworths’ Board wrote in response to the proposal.

“The directors also note that interest and advocacy groups have a range of avenues outside the AGM to engage with the company.”

The ACCR also supports an adjoining resolution to recommend Woolworths file an annual human rights impact report, which activist shareholder say should address the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, among other similar documents.

The proposal said the report should disclose no later than 90 days before an AGM, “where actual adverse human rights impacts are identified through the HRDD [the report’s] assessment, the nature of those impacts, and actions taken by our company in response, including remedying adverse human rights impacts.”

The ACCR pointed to a recent survey of large ASX-listed companies on measures they have in place for identifying, addressing and disclosing human rights related risk, which scored Woolworths at 20 per cent, as a reason for supporting the reporting proposal.

“Our company has extensive food and agricultural supply chains which expose us to significant risks: for example, our company, through its suppliers, has recently been implicated in reports of extreme labour exploitation on Australian farms,” the ACCR said, referencing a Four Corners investigation from 2015.

Responding to the human rights report proposal, Woolworths’ Board said Woolworths already reports annually on its management of human rights matters in its Corporate Social Responsibility Report.

“Woolworths is committed to respecting human rights for its team members and the workers in its supply chain, in alignment with the principles and guidance contained in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” the Board said.

The Board further said a group-wide review is underway of ethical sourcing practices, which is expected to be completed in FY18, and that the company engaged in modern slavery legislation currently being probed in Canberra.

Rogue director seeks appointment

Woolworths is also fighting the election campaign of Darebin City Councillor (VIC) Dr. Susan Rennie to the Board. Rennie, who nominated herself, believes Woolworths “needs more directors in tune with the global focus on corporate social responsibility.”

Noting Woolworths’ investment in pokies and former CEO Roger Corbett’s opposition to same-sex marriage, Rennie warned that Woolworths’ brand is “at risk”. Woolworths Board said it does not believe that Rennie is as qualified to serve on the Board as other members, and that the Board already has “strong skills and experience in corporate responsibility matters”.

Rennie said her nomination was a personal matter and that she was not involved in the human rights report motion, or with the NUW/ACCR. Woolworths’ AGM will be held on the 23rd of November. Woolworths has been contacted for comment.

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