From long hours to customer abuse, retail workers are at

A federal court case in Australia is raising questions across different industries about working conditions, and expectations regarding reasonable working hours. In a recent article for The Conversation, Associate Professor Giuseppe Carabetta claimed that the outcome of the case has the potential to open doors for legal action by Australian workers, if their contractual obligation to perform ‘reasonable hours’ (a maximum of 38 hours unless otherwise specified) were breached. Discussions over

s over workplace rights and entitlements have intensified following a successful trial in the UK, whereby 61 businesses paid 100 per cent wages for a four-day work week, or 80 per cent of the hours. The immediate outcome was a drop in absenteeism, turnover and burnout. Staff wellbeing improved, while business productivity either maintained, or got better, as a result of the change.

The retail industry is far from immune from this debate. Staff underpayment is rife across the sector, while research from the University of Sydney and Australian National University demonstrated that customer abuse, sexual harassment and gender inequality are significant and widespread.

According to this research – presented in conjunction with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) – more than half of the retail workers surveyed considered customer abuse to be a problem in the workplace. Further, one in five retail workers said they had been sexually harassed at work in the past five years, most commonly by a senior colleague or a customer.

Work pressures faced by retail staff intensified amid Covid-19 restrictions. According to the Pandemic Pressures report by the University of Sydney and Australian National University, 51 per cent of women surveyed said that the pandemic decreased their job security somewhat, or to a great extent. This figure increased to 56 per cent among people aged under 30, to 51 per cent among all frontline retail workers, and to 60 per cent among people who speak a language other than English at home.

Cost-of-living pressures are also exacerbating the challenges faced by staff across the industry, with calls for a wage increase as a means of providing staff with a living wage amid rising inflation.

Co-author of the Pandemic Pressures report, Professor Ariadne Vromen suspects that if retail workers are working longer hours than they are being paid for, it is likely to have an effect on turnover and retention in retail – especially considering the tight labour market.

“If people are already on quite a low hourly rate and don’t see that they’re being compensated for their general loyalty and commitment to an organisation – through set hours and schedules plus permanent work status (part time or full time) – that’s going to lead to a larger problem of turnover,” Vromen said.

Chronic labour shortages

The Australian Retailers Association (ARA) has teamed up with the SDA to urge state and territory governments to implement tougher penalties for people who assault retail workers.

ARA CEO Paul Zahra said the rise of antisocial behaviour is a concern for the industry. He believes that a crime doesn’t need to be committed for physical or mental harm to be done to retail workers. Zahra told Inside Retail that, following the pandemic, some retail staff have worked more hours than usual due to chronic labour shortages.

He said there were comprehensive protections in place via retail industry awards which prevent over-rostering or over-working. However, he believes that staff can find themselves burned out or overwhelmed due to workload increase, which can occur within the confines of the law.

Zahra also noted that sole traders and family businesses tend to be overrepresented among those working longer hours, due to proprietors making sacrifices to fill labour gaps.

“While retail employers will roster staff in accordance with the relevant laws in place, we encourage staff who are feeling overwhelmed or burnt out to raise it with their line manager – don’t suffer in silence,” Zahra said.

Zahra maintained that most retailers are committed to supporting their team’s wellbeing. From time to time, he said that unlawful exploitation occurs within the industry, but he said that these matters are dealt with by the courts and authorities. He added that the ARA is working with governments and the retail industry to find as many solutions as possible to address the staff and skills shortages.

This includes advocating for improvements in childcare to improve workforce participation and financial security for women. The ARA is also seeking national consistency around the minimum working age, and the continued streamlining of immigration applications.

Zahra also called for more support for long-term, unemployed people, which would ensure more access to sustained work.

“Labour shortages continue to be one of the most concerning challenges for retailers, as a flow-on effect of the pandemic.”

Costs are significant

Assistant Professor of organisational behaviour at Bond University, Dr Libby Sander explained that Australia was in the bottom third of OECD countries when it comes to working long hours.

She told Inside Retail that the pernicious health outcomes for people who regularly work long hours are wide ranging. According to Sander, research shows that employees within this category are more likely to have poorer mental health and lower quality sleep.

They are also more likely to smoke, drink excessively, gain weight and face a greater risk of suffering a stroke.

Regarding what can be done to address cultures of overwork, she said that creating awareness of the links between long work hours and detrimental outcomes for employee well-being, turnover and customer service is critical.

“Education and awareness is important, as is good communication,” Sander said.

“Setting policies and monitoring those is essential. [As is] having effective systems to ensure there is transparency regarding hours being worked.

“The costs [of poor working conditions] are significant to employers and employees.”