19 October 2021


As the COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear, there are some workers in this country whose contribution to our communities is such that they deserve particular recognition. But one category of worker whose value to our community the pandemic has highlighted so well is that of shop assistants—the retail workers who, at great risk to their own personal health, have stacked the shelves and stood at the checkouts, diligently ensuring Australians have access to the food and other necessities of daily life their families require.

Yet, despite the important role these workers have played, they continue to remain structurally undervalued in our economy. They continue to remain among the lowest paid, besieged, with increasingly insecure work. Putting aside the impact this has on the workers themselves, it also has a profound effect on those in their lives in need of care.

Last week the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association launched a report entitled Who cares? A fair share of work and care: challenges of work, family and care for Australia’s retail, online retail, warehousing and fast food workers.

The SDA, in partnership with the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, commissioned a first-ever study into the challenges workers in retail face. It paints a dire picture of daily life for the country’s largest private sector employer.

The study demonstrates the overwhelming emotional and financial stress that these workers face as they struggle with precarious hours, being unable to find suitable child care and dealing with retribution for simply asking for shifts that fit in with their responsibilities.

Almost 6½ thousand workers responded to the survey, with the results exposing the immense pressure of grappling with irregular work and concern their hours are negatively affecting their children’s lives. It found that compared to the general population these workers are more than twice as likely to be caring for an older person or a person with a disability, to be the parent of a child with a disability and almost three times as likely to be a young carer. A quarter of them are sole parents.

For workers like these, being able to rely on consistent well-paid work makes all the difference in getting the balance right in their families. Yet 60 per cent reported that they don’t work the same shifts each week, illustrating the practical impact this has. One respondent, a woman who cares for her elderly mother and works permanently part-time, said: ‘If my hours were consistent, I could plan doctors’ appointments for my mother. As they change so often, it’s very hard to plan for outside your work life.’

For parents, their ability to rely on child care to support their work is minimal, with most avoiding formal paid child care owing to the high cost and lack of access for those working nonstandard hours. One was quoted as saying, ‘Child care caters for the parents working nine to five, not the single parent that works in retail until 10 pm.’ Another said: ‘Is this the way that we want to be able to treat those who have supported us so diligently throughout this pandemic? Is this any way to treat any worker in our economy at all?’

What the study clearly shows is that our country and our industrial relation systems in this country are failing these workers. The structural elements of our economy and insecure working arrangements are preventing workers from providing the care and support that the children in their lives, the elderly and the disabled should receive. It’s not good enough, and it shouldn’t be accepted. I commend the SDA for bringing these conditions to light and implore us all in this place to take up this task and right this wrong.