18 Mar 2016

Volunteer pay: Goodwill or cost-saving?

10:43 am on 18 March 2016

Hardware chain Bunnings pays community groups $12.50 per person, per hour, for stocktake - is goodwill behind the gesture or is the company just trying to save on costs?


Bunnings, New Lynn Photo: RNZ

In March last year a Bunnings' Warehouse in Wellington put out a letter to community groups, asking for help with its six-monthly stocktake.

The company offered them $12.50 an hour for each person who signed up - payment worded as a donation, not a wage.

The current minimum wage is $14.25 an hour, rising to $14.75 at the start of April.

The volunteers would start at 4pm and work into the night, and they all had to be over 18.

One of those who received the invitation was Louise Blair.

The offer gave Bunnings cheap labour and let it flout employment rules, she said.

"So they were able to claim the glory for giving a donation to a local community group, but at the same time side-stepping ACC levies, taxes, holiday liabilities and any of the things of having an employee do that work."

First Union spokesperson Maxine Gay said she had no idea of this practice, which she said was suspicious. The union represents many of Bunnings' workers.

"It sounds very dodgy to me and it sounds like just a way to actually get this work done very cheaply.

"I've never known Bunnings in the past to not require its own workforce to actually undertake stocktake work."

If it was a genuine commitment to support charities it would give a nominated amount to a charity, in exchange for the charity bringing in people to work, not an hourly rate, she said.

"I would think the Labour Inspectorate should be very interested in this, because this is lower than the minimum wage because they are requiring people to be over the age of 18."

Crafty or charitable?

Employment lawyer Peter Cullen said at first-glance it seemed Bunnings was being crafty, in order to pay people less.

But on further inspection it was unclear whether the practice was legal or not, he said.

"There's no intention to create legal relations with the workers but rather with, let's say the sports club. The second point is there is no direct payment to the workers and generally there is probably no expectation from them that they would be paid."

The terms of the agreement suggested the workers were indeed volunteers, and not just poorly paid workers, he said.

But it was foggy enough to challenge in court - and the practice does swing in Bunnings' favour.

"Overall they are probably getting good PR and remain getting workers who would normally get a hell of a lot more, rather than the sort of work you would get if you paid the minimum wage.

No caption

Photo: 123rf.com

"I think it's a benefit for Bunnings, or whoever does it, and workers who normally work there would feel that people are being brought in to undercut them."

Checkpoint with John Campbell asked Bunnings if the company saved money by having volunteers run the stocktake over staff members, and if paid employees were offered the work first.

It didn't answer those questions but its general manager Jacqui Coombes said the company's preference was to use its own staff for stock-take.

She also reiterated the system was entirely voluntary.

Fundraising New Zealand chief executive officer James Austin said there was no shortage of community groups trying to earn money and in theory he was glad to see corporates helping them out.

But he echoed Mr Cullen's concerns.

"I would hope though in any organisation that is offering this service to charities that you're not saving money by doing so, that the amount of money that they would normally spend on producing that outcome that they're looking for would be equal to what they would have to pay commercially."

Ms Blair said Bunnings' employees would probably appreciate the over-time.

"I'm not a lawyer, I don't know if it's illegal but I don't think it sounds fair and equitable where the minimum wage is $14.75 and you're asking parents to do that to help their children."

Bunnings get to fly the flag of community spirit - but their focus seems purely on profit, she said.

Some Bunnings workers were given suspension notices yesterday after taking off their signature aprons during an employment dispute.

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