When the Four Corners/Fairfax Media story broke in August last year that franchisees of convenience store giant 7-Eleven were underpaying their workers – mostly young migrants and students – on a massive scale amid a head office cover up, I vowed to boycott the chain in a show of solidarity with those caught out.
Not only was I angry at the treatment of vulnerable people at the bottom of the social ladder, but I also knew a fair bit about the owners of the Australian business: Russell Withers and his sister Beverley Barlow, who had become billionaires on the back of a business model “built on something not much different from slavery” according to one insider interviewed by Four Corners.
Of course, by its very nature, boycotting the country’s biggest convenience store chain with more than 600 stores is incredibly hard to do: their stores are literally everywhere and…convenient.
On my way to catch the tram every morning, there’s a 7-Eleven across the road which sells myki tickets (very handy when my monthly pass runs out) and another at the train station for doughnuts if I come home late from a night out. In town there’s a 7-Eleven across the road from work with a Bankwest cash machine (my bank), cheap coffee and snacks.
So I have continued to patronise these 7-Elevens even as I wonder what kind of wage the man serving me behind the counter is earning or the guy who fills the coffee machine with beans.
But, I also thought I would give the company the opportunity to turn itself around and become a respectable and fair employer.
But now I am taking a firm stand. I won’t patronise a 7-Eleven store again: the latest evidence suggests that not much has changed at the beleaguered and yet incredibly arrogant company.
In May, 7-Eleven sacked the respected former Competition Commissioner Allan Fels who was heading up its wages panel. Fels told the ABC his sacking was part of plans to minimise the payout to underpaid workers.
More recently, covert footage obtained by the ABC showed an employee being forced to pay back part of their wage to a franchise owner at a Brisbane 7-Eleven.
To top it all off I have had my own minor dealings with 7-Eleven following a story I wrote in the Australian Financial Review in August about the sale of two 7-Eleven service stations to Chinese investors.
I wrote, in a short article, that despite the wages scandal at 7-Eleven, this did not discourage the buyers who paid record prices for the two stores.
A couple of days later, a letter sent to the paper’s editor from the chairman of 7-Eleven, Michael Smith claimed that the following statement in my story was “untrue”:
Last year a joint Fairfax Media and ABC Four Corners investigation unveiled a massive wages scandal at 7-Eleven stores, involving systematic underpayment of staff by franchisees and a cover up by its corporate head office.
Mr Smith demanded that the statement made by Fairfax in this context “be rectified and withdrawn” – a request I am happy to say the AFR did not oblige. In the context of all the in-depth coverage about the wages scandal at 7-Eleven (in all the major newspapers and on the ABC) amid a huge public outcry, it was a most ridiculous request.
7-Eleven is not the only retail company found to have underpaid its workers. Supermarket giant Coles was recently found to have underpaid its employees and cut penalty rates in a union deal that cost low paid workers as much as $70 million a year, while petrol giant United Petroleum also underpaid some of its workers, an audit in August found.
In short, the exploitation of lowly workers in the retail sector appears to be a common practice.
The only way to stop is to shop with your feet, even if its highly inconvenient.