Workers feel pressured with Boxing Day trading extended across NSW

Retail worker Madeleine Wright.  Picture: Christopher Pearce
Retail worker Madeleine Wright. Picture: Christopher Pearce

Boxing Day trading will be extended throughout New South Wales despite a review showing less than half of retailers supported it and one in five workers feel coerced to work.

The NSW Government has decided to introduce legislation to allow Boxing Day trading in response to a two-year trial of trading in regional areas, including Newcastle and Wollongong.

The government commissioned an independent review which found Boxing Day trading had the support of 41 per cent of retailers using a survey by JWS Research. Support was higher in regional NSW locations, at 47 per cent. 

The review by consultant Professor Percy Allan also found one in five workers felt "coerced" to work on Boxing Day and that real growth in NSW retail sales for December 2015 and 2016 had declined since the two-year trial began.

A union survey of retail workers found two in five employees felt "pressured" to work on Boxing Day despite legal requirements that it be voluntary. 

Madeleine Wright, 22, who works in a retail store in Sydney's inner-west said she was pressured to work on Boxing Day in 2015.

Boxing Day trading will be extended throughout New South Wales.

Boxing Day trading will be extended throughout New South Wales.

"On Christmas Eve, a manager approached me to work on Boxing Day and I declined the shift because I had family staying from rural NSW and I don't see them often," she said. "My manager just kept pressuring me saying the money is really good and kept going till I finally said 'OK, I'll work'."

The manager suggested Ms Wright could work fewer hours on Boxing Day as a compromise, but when the day came she was asked to work even more hours.

"They said the money was really good and I shouldn't turn it down, but I said the money wasn't worth it and I had family to see."

The independent review found half of store owners and managers were not aware that working on Boxing Day is a voluntary act and that coercing someone is an offence. 

ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman.  Photo: Supplied

ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman. Photo: Supplied

The review recommended employers be fined $3000 for each employee pressured to work on Boxing Day. Landlords would face a minimum fine of $6000 per tenant forced to open or close on Boxing Day.

The state government has instead decided to introduce maximum fines of up to $11,000.

A spokeswoman for NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said mandatory minimum penalties are only used in NSW for rare, violent criminal offences and would "therefore be inappropriate".

"There is a risk that automatic fines would deny employers procedural fairness where they have in fact acted in accordance with the legislation," she said.

The union that represents retail workers said the NSW government's industrial relations agency rarely enforced such fines.

Bernie Smith, the secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association said the review's recommendation to extend retail trading did not match its findings. He said smaller retailers opposed Boxing Day trading because they also valued time with family. 

"The recommendations are based on myths – that there is some economic benefit from Boxing Day trading and the idea that workers have the ability to freely choose whether to work or not on Boxing Day," Mr Smith said.

"On paper, workers may have the right to refuse to work, but anyone who has spent any time in the industry knows that if the shop is open that's far from the reality."  

The review concluded there was sufficient support from shoppers and retail owners, managers and workers to continue with state-wide trading on Boxing Day. 

"However, shop owners and managers need to be better informed of their obligations regarding the coercion of employees to work on the day and law enforcement measures should be upgraded," it said.

 Mr Perrottet said there was clear support for giving all retailers the option of opening on Boxing Day "provided staff are given a free choice as to whether they will work or not".

"Our position strikes a sensible balance, giving retailers and their employees the freedom to work if they want to, but also putting in place strict sanctions to ensure they are not pressured to do so," he said.

Australian Retailers Association executive director Russell Zimmerman disputed the report's figures, saying Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed retail sales were up 3.37 per cent for the month of December 2016 compared to the previous year.

"Consumers want to shop on Boxing Day, and retailers want to trade, it's as simple as that," Mr Zimmerman said.

"Giving NSW retailers an opportunity to trade on this public holiday not only gives retailers a chance to increase their sales it allows physical stores to compete with online and interstate retailers."