Australia: Interview with UNITE union for young workers

Anthony Main is the Secretary of UNITE, the fighting union for fast food and retail workers, based in Australia

With a decision imminent about Hong Kong’s minimum wage level, and thousands of young workers trapped in low paid jobs in the fast food and convenience store sector, chinaworker spoke to Anthony about the work his union does organising young workers, to see what lessons can be learned for unions and youth in Hong Kong.

Chinaworker: How did you get the idea for UNITE and how did you set it up?

Anthony: In 2003 a small group of people got together in Melbourne to discuss campaigning around young worker’s issues. We were looking towards the Unite Union in New Zealand who were attempting to organise casual workers in areas like hospitality (hotel, leisure and catering).

We took some inspiration from their work and set up UNITE in Australia as a campaign against low pay and casualisation. In particular we targeted the areas of fast food, retail and hospitality because it is in these areas that the problems are most pronounced. These are also the areas where most young workers are employed.

Chinaworker: UNITE has organised some successful campaigns and won pay rises for young workers. How did you do it?

Anthony: Initially we focused on ‘naming and shaming’ campaigns where we would publicly expose bosses who were ripping off their staff. Many employers in the industry rely heavily on the credibility of their brand name. We have found that often if you couple workers action on the job with a media campaign you can get results.

In 2006 we transformed UNITE into a union with more formal structures and alongside these types of campaigns we have been encouraging young workers to join UNITE and build it as a fighting union.

We have had some successes in winning pay rises and back pay for workers who have been underpaid. Our most prominent campaign has been against the convenience store giant 7-Eleven. This company mostly employs Chinese and Indian students and in most cases they are underpaid. The workers are usually very timid because they are in Australia on temporary student visas but the campaign has managed to have some wins.

For example, so far we have won nearly $200,000 (AUD = $1,280,953 HKD) in back pay for 7-Eleven workers. Our campaign has also forced the state to audit around 60 7-Eleven stores and there is currently a case before the courts where we expect to win another $100,000. This particular employer is also being prosecuted for breeches of workplace law.

Chinaworker: In Hong Kong most young workers are not in a union and know very little about unionism. What’s the situation in Australia?

Anthony: The situation in Australia is very similar. Private sector union membership is at around 13 – 14 percent but for workers under 25 it is less than 10 percent. There is very little knowledge about trade unions amongst young people, which is why one of the other aspects of our work is visiting high schools. Through our campaign work and our school visits we are trying to reintroduce the ideas of trade unionism to a new generation of young people.

Chinaworker: In Hong Kong we are fighting for a minimum wage, but the level looks like being very low, not enough to live on. Does Australia have a minimum wage and what is your experience of how it works in practice?

Anthony: Yes in Australia there is a minimum wage. It is currently $14.31 per hour ($ 91.62 HKD) for an adult over the age of 21. The problem for young workers however is that there is also a junior rate of pay. If you are under 21 you generally get paid according to your age. In some cases 15-year-old workers can be paid as little as half the minimum wage.

It is very difficult to live on the minimum wage in Australia. Housing, food and transport prices are very high. To make matters worse currently we have inflation running at about 2.8 percent, but last year the government refused to give minimum wage workers any pay rise.

Chinaworker: Do you get support from other unions?

Anthony: Yes we do. While not all unions are happy about our existence we have been lucky enough to get a little bit of support from some of the more progressive unions in Victoria. It is still hard, our union is mostly run by volunteers on the smell of an oily rag (on a low budget), but some unions have given us small donations and in kind support. Our members pay dues and we also have a layer of supporters who give regular donations.

There are quite a few people who help in their own way. We have lawyers, accountants and industrial officers that are happy to give us free advice and support but the most important volunteers are the young workers who visit shops helping with the campaigns and organising.

Chinaworker: What role have socialists and CWI members played in UNITE?

Anthony: Well CWI members, including myself, helped found UNITE back in 2003. Many of us are still leading the organisation. The Socialist Party (CWI Australia) has been very generous with time and money but most importantly they have given us political support.

It has been the failed policies of the right wing union leaders that has led to a situation where so many young workers are outside of the union movement. In a way we are now trying to clean up their mess. It’s going to be up to socialists to rebuild the labour movement. We are the only ones with the ideas and methods to take on a system that super-exploits young workers. That will be the case in Australia, in Hong Kong and across the world.

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