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Woolworths sued over alleged lost wages that turned workers' lives 'upside down'

Woolies worker Lauren says she joined the lawsuit "because our workplace rights are worth fighting for”.

Woolworths is being sued on behalf of up to 1,400 employees who had their "world turned upside down" at the "height of the pandemic" when they were allegedly dragged into meetings and forced to take huge pay cuts.

The Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) has launched "landmark legal action" against the supermarket giant in Victoria’s Federal Court, claiming full-time employees had their wages slashed by up to $30,000 a year after roster changes forced them from night work onto day or evening shifts, allegedly "without warning or consultation".

It's alleged the Woolworths Group unlawfully breached the Fair Work Act between April and July 2021 when workers at roughly 100 stores across Victoria and Tasmania were told their shift patterns had radically changed, some losing tens of thousands of dollars as a result.

Staff and customers at Woolworths store checkouts.
Woolworths said there was an extensive consultation period. (Source: Getty)

RAFFWU Secretary Josh Cullinan said the union was seeking compensation for up to 1,400 workers' lost wages and "penalties against Woolworths".

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"The action is landmark because it is the first federal court action by anyone for these issues at Woolworths," Cullinan told Yahoo Finance. "The scale, value and seriousness of the issues make it landmark."

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He alleged workers who disputed the changes and kept turning up to their regular shifts were threatened by Woolworths with no pay or were sent home and told they must comply with the new directions.

"There was no warning," Cullinan claimed. "The reward for a year of working in the pandemic was for these workers to have massive cuts in their pay and for their overnight work to be switched to day or evening work."

RAFFWU Secretary Josh Cullinan and two Woolies workers
RAFFWU Secretary Josh Cullinan and two Woolies workers, also RAFFWU members, who took part in this year's 'super strike'. (Source: RAFFWU) (rebeccafranksediting)

He claimed the retail giant used "coercion" to force the shift changes, alleged the "real reason" for the shake-up was to avoid paying penalty rates and meal breaks, and said the legal action was aimed at holding "the Woolworths Group to account for these attacks on workers".

"We are seeking proper compensation for all affected workers, including the tens of thousands of dollars a year some workers have lost as a result of the changes," Cullinan said. "We have previously successfully sued Woolworths Group for union busting and this conduct must stop."

The lawsuit, which was lodged in the court on Monday, is being brought by RAFFWU and co-applicants Peter Lawson and Lauren Dyer, who were seeking “specific compensation, declarations and penalties” as a result of alleged breaches of the act.

“My life was turned upside down by Woolworths Group when they told me my roster was changing because they had abolished overnight work.” Dyer - a RAFFWU delegate at Woolworths Lilydale - said.

“I’ve joined the RAFFWU lawsuit because our workplace rights are worth fighting for.”

Woolworths worker Lauren Dyer and her husband
Lauren Dyer said her life was turned upside down when Woolworths made the changes. (Source: supplied) (Supplied)

The lawsuit also seeks to secure an audit of Woolworths to identify other workers who had been similarly affected by the roster changes.

Woolies responds: 'Extensive consultation'

In a statement, a Woolworths spokesperson said: "In July 2021, we changed the way we replenish our Victorian and Tasmanian stores, moving the key shelf-stocking period from overnight activity to an afternoon/evening shift.

"This brought our Victorian and Tasmanian stores in line with every other state and territory."

Woolworths said the move was to make more stock available to a growing number of customers choosing to shop during the evening.

"We knew that this was a change to their rosters and that's why there was an extensive consultation period commencing in April 2021 - prior to the change - to ensure the transition to new rosters was as smooth as possible," the statement said.

"This included transition payments for impacted team members. As this matter is now before the court, it would not be appropriate to comment further."

In October this year, RAFFWU led a strike of hundreds of Woolies and Coles workers in an effort to improve pay and conditions for retail workers. Members stopped performing many of their usual tasks, such as changing price stickers, collecting trolleys, packing online orders, crushing cardboard, and cleaning toilets.

The union was demanding a minimum wage increase, changes to wages for junior, apprentice and disabled staff, improved conditions for casual workers, and better security for frontline workers.

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