Politics

Woolworths Innisfail Accused Of Treating Indigenous Diversity Program as “Slave Labour”

“It was like slave labour, we’ll just get some Indigenous people to come to do some free work for a week and then get rid of them,” said one of the affected workers.

Woolworths diversity program

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Eight Indigenous women did a week’s unpaid work in October for Woolworths Innisfail, in Queensland, with the promise they’d be rewarded with ongoing positions at the store.

But in the weeks following four of them have been left with no shifts, being told there was no work despite other staff being hired after them.

“It was like slave labour, we’ll just get some Indigenous people to come to do some free work for a week and then get rid of them,” affected worker Laura* said.

She and seven other Indigenous women were brought onto the Diversity Dimensions program at Woolworths, as part of their Employment Parity initiative in partnership with the Federal Government, which has the goal of reaching Indigenous 2.8 percent representation in their workforce.

Laura said she did a day’s induction training, unpaid. For the rest of the week, she and the other seven members of the program stacked shelves unsupervised as “training”.

“We didn’t know because we were just told ‘oh go and do this’,” Laura said. “We were there every day for four hours of the day, doing work.”

The Fair Work Ombudsman website says that any training done must be paid. Laura said she was only paid for training she did after officially being hired.

Despite eight of them being taken onto the program, which promises to give the candidates 15-hour-a-week contracts, only four were given these positions. Laura missed out, but was taken on as a casual.

She asked for feedback, but was told they didn’t make the hiring decision based on performance.

“They said: ‘It was just a lucky dip, we just pulled out a name’,” Laura said. “I wanted to know why I didn’t get picked.”

She hasn’t had any shifts for weeks, and neither has another worker.

“It was weird. On paper it said we were hired, but we never got hours,” she said. “The others were hired part-time. And they get hours constantly.”

Laura said since then, others had been hired from outside the Diversity Dimensions program at the store, and were getting hours.

“The whole week we were training we kept hearing them whinge about how understaffed they were,” she said. “They said: ‘we thought the Diversity Dimensions would mean there would be more staff for us’, but they don’t want to rock the boat.”

The episode had left the four girls feeling dejected, Laura said.

“I feel unwanted. I have no idea why they don’t want to put us on,” she said. “They give us programs, make us feel good for that first week, and then they don’t want us.

“We didn’t do anything wrong, we showed up and did the work.”

Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union secretary Josh Culinan slammed the store.

“This discriminatory wage theft is unlawful,” he said. “The treatment of Indigenous women by Woolworths Innisfail is outrageous.

“Workers should not be pitted against each other for work in this way and it harks back to choosing workers on the side of the road for their shift in the mines. Woolworths must immediately intervene and guarantee all participants dignified work, and pay for their training.

“There should be an investigation into who has benefited under the process used and whether any agencies have been paid monies for attendance and enrolment in the program.”

UPDATE: Woolworths did not respond to direct questions about why the women did unpaid training for a week ahead of the hiring process, but said it would look to provide Laura and the other new hire with no shifts with some work.

“We’re disappointed to hear recent participants had a negative experience and will ask our partner Diversity Dimensions to follow this feedback up directly,” a spokeswoman said.

Diversity Dimensions chief executive Carolyn Gallaway said: “The commitment from all involved to ensuring that every participant is given the opportunity to gain employment,” but did not say why this hadn’t happened in Innisfail.

*Name has been changed to protect their identity.