Issue No: 82 January-July 2013
By Michael Walker
Electronics are a boom industry and electronics manufacturing continues to grow through China and South-East Asia, although the workers have a long path ahead to win their fair share of the profits. Other articles in this issue profile some of these challenges.
In nearby Australia, the electronics boom has impacted the labour movement in three ways:
- Globalised production has caused the country’s economy to shift from being a production based economy to a service based economy. Little or no electronics manufacturing takes place locally. A metaphor for this shift is the Australian Technology Park near Central Sydney (www.atp.com.au); it was previously a railway manufacturing and maintenance shed and one of Sydney’s largest unionised workplaces. Today the building is used to house a film studio, conference centre and offices for a number of start-up tech companies. Usually when this sort of transition takes place, the workers’ union tries to fight it, fails, then shrinks numerically when the workforce is finally laid off. This lack of adaptation is a major reason Australia’s overall union membership has been in long-term decline.
- The way people use electronics has had an impact on workers in every sector of the economy. I’ll explore this in more detail below.
- Lastly electronics have in many ways assisted workers to organise, for example mobile phones allow union Organisers to cover more ground, desktop publishing makes newsletters more cost efficient, etc. The Internet also allows worker organisations to create virtual communities around issues of concern, including GetUp! (www.getup.org.au) and Destroy the Joint (www.facebook.com/DestroyTheJoint). These do not seem to have lasting impact on their own but have been very successful at adding fuel to the fire in conjunction with offline social change campaigning.
Amazon kills Borders
Technology has unleashed change outside anyone’s control, creating a need to adapt. I’m going to look at this narrowly in relation to Australia’s retail and transportation workforce.
The change began a decade ago when Australian shoppers started spending more time on their computers and realised they could purchase books from Amazon.com at prices substantially lower than what they would pay in a store. eBay also had an impact with small purchases that could be made online.
Even though only a relatively small amount of purchases started being made online (even today it’s only 10%), the mere presence of online stores makes it possible for people to compare the price in a store to the online price, putting pressure on traditional retailers’ business models. Victims of this trend have included the Borders, Angus & Robertson and Collins bookseller chains, all of which have closed in the last couple of years. Australia’s two venerable department store chains, Myer (established 1900) and David Jones (established 1838), have also struggled, with Myer being spun off from one of the country’s two major retail companies into the hands of private investors in 2007.
The growth of online sales has not displaced retail shops overall, in fact the retail industry has grown in overall size in the last decade. While there have been categories where online rivals have caused a decline in sales (e.g. books, printed newspapers, DVDs), in many cases it appears to have been a coincidence and customers were simply switching to other retailers. Large purchases like iPads, PCs, Televisions and Blu-ray players are still mostly bought in stores because they are too costly to import and cross-border sales create problems with warranties, returns for defects, etc. The ‘it’ product, smartphones, are also mostly sold in retail outlets of the major telcos.
Unions have had to move fast to catch up in this ever-changing environment, but are showing that they can do it. Some examples:
- There are now onshore internet fulfilment centres, which benefit from being able to deliver ordered goods within 1-2 days, something Amazon can never match. An example is The Iconic (www.theiconic.com.au), currently the target of an organising drive.
- The increase in parcel deliveries has created a huge rise in business for Australia Post as well as its competitors, Toll and DHL. Regrettably Australia Post have mostly chosen to engage extra delivery drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, causing them to have fewer entitlements such as paid sick leave. This issue of precarious / insecure work is now a major campaign focus of Australia’s peak union body, the ACTU, although it remains to be seen whether or how that can translate into membership.
- The two major supermarket chains, Woolworths and Wesfarmers, have created a new workforce of grocery delivery drivers to respond to the increased demand for home delivery, which both the retail and transport unions are seeking to organise. According to the Transport Workers Union (TWU), one in three of all trucks on the nation’s roads are carrying goods for the two big retailers. The TWU have been organising these workers over the issues of suitable pay, driver safety and fatigue. In January, their National Secretary stated that 40% of drivers working for Wesfarmers’ Coles supermarkets are paid so little that they cannot afford to take their trucks off the road for maintenance.
- Warehousing employment is also growing. Woolworths recently constructed a vast new distribution centre in Southwestern Sydney for two of its subsidiaries, Big W and Masters. Both warehouses have been organised over the past 18 months and are now majority union sites. Incidentally the great majority of goods passing through this centre – not just electronics but tools, clothes and toys as well – are no longer manufactured in Australia but imported from Asia.
Unions are still the best-positioned organisations to assist workers and have a moral responsibility to organise these new companies and ensure their workers have a voice. In some cases they are doing so, but the pace of change is so rapid that they are struggling to find new members at a rate that replaces those whose jobs have been lost. The nation’s unionisation rate will continue to decline unless they allocate more resources to growth.