24 Apr 2020

Plea for supermarkets not to end workers' Covid-19 bonus pay

5:50 pm on 24 April 2020

Supermarkets are ending the 10 percent bonus pay provided to staff - causing anger among workers who say they are feeling crushed by the decision.

Larger than usual queues outside of Countdown Greenlane a day before the supermarkets shut on Good Friday.

Countdown and Foodstuffs are ending the 10 percent bonus that has been paid to supermarket staff since the country moved to alert level 4. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Countdown and Foodstuffs has been giving the bonus since the country moved into Covid-19 alert level 4, but First Union said it will not be handed out beyond the coming week.

Its secretary for retail, finance and commerce Tali Williams, said after workers finally got the recognition they deserved, Countdown and Foodstuffs do not believe they are worth the living wage.

"Workers are risking their safety, often for poverty wages, so that the rest of us can stay home and eliminate the spread of Covid-19 in New Zealand as we've been asked to do," she said in a statement.

"Many supermarket workers are telling us that they're scared and stressed, overworked and struggling with rent, and the 10 percent bonus from employers was one of the only things keeping them afloat."

Williams said there had been no such problems for the supermarkets themselves, which have been "raking it in".

"Workers tell us that demand for groceries has literally doubled in recent weeks as New Zealanders are cooking at home, not to mention the initial panic buying rush," she said.

"Nobody should be earning less than the living wage while they put their lives on the line during a pandemic that has already killed over 180,000 people globally where essential workers are especially vulnerable."

Williams said Countdown workers will get their bonus payment in a lump sum in mid-May, while Foodstuffs workers have had their bonus included in their regular payslip.

"This bonus recognised not only the essential service our team have been providing New Zealanders, but also the weeks before the lockdown when our supermarkets and supply chain experienced incredibly high levels of demand," a spokesperson for Countdown said.

They said since the bonuses they have also recruited around 2000 new team members to help the business get back to normalcy and create less stress.

Countdown will continue to pay staff members who cannot work because they are deemed to be high risk to Covid-19, and staff members will also continue to get an increased food discount of 10 percent, the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Foodstuffs said the bonus was originally put in place to recognise the extra demands put on staff during the busy four-week period of alert level 4.

They said they have extended the bonus until Monday 27 April , the final day of alert level 4.

"As the country moves out of alert level 4 it makes sense that wages return to normal and owners usual business processes pick up again including undertaking employee pay reviews and rewarding their teams independently for their hard work."

Public urged to show support

"We're calling on New Zealanders to bring a heart, draw a heart, wear a heart when you're doing your normal shopping over the coming weeks," Williams said.

"Get creative - involve your kids and your families - and display or wear your support proudly when you're visiting the supermarket as normal during level 3."

She said an A4 or A3 bit of paper "fits nicely onto the front of a supermarket trolley" - so people can show their message of support for workers while calling on the supermarkets to "show some heart" and continue paying workers fairly.

Supermarket workers react

Supermarket workers declined to comment to RNZ directly, as they are advised in their contracts not to speak to media.

But in anonymous statements, some said the 10 percent pay rise had really helped them after their total household incomes took a hit, and they were worried that pressure would not necessarily go away when restrictions ease.

Some said they had never expected the 10 percent pay rise to be extended, so it wasn't a disappointment.

Others said they didn't even know about the pay rise until today, with their managers now promising to backpay them the extra wages, in a lump sum.

Outside Pak N'Save supermarket in Glen Innes, people had mixed reactions to the idea of the pay bonus continuing.

Two, who were essential workers themselves, noted that people across most other industries had taken big pay cuts.

"I'm working full time - in fact, I'm busier than I've ever been and my missus is busier than she's ever been. We've both taken large pay cuts to keep our businesses going and ticking over through this issue. [Supermarket workers] are in an industry that's actually surviving quite nicely and at least they've got their jobs," one said.

"I'd be more concerned about sharing that money around with people that actually need it.

"I know everyone likes to be paid more, but this was an extraordinary situation," another person said.

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