‘Cotton On’ clothes retailer workers defeat attempt to remove rest and meal breaks

Fast-food workers organised by the Unite Union have celebrated several victories in the fight against zero-hour contracts in New Zealand. Such contracts lock employees into permanent employment while denying them guaranteed hours of work. They are particularly common in the fast food industry.

After sustained pressure Restaurant Brands (KFC, Pizza Hutt, Wendy’s, Carl’s Junior) and Burger King have agreed to scrap zero-hour contracts. Even the right-wing government has been forced to voice opposition to the practice and has announced it will outlaw the worst elements of these contracts, such as restraint of trade clauses which make it illegal for an employee to seek other work in the same industry on days they are not rostered on.

Unite Union deserves huge credit both for organising workers in an industry that is characterised by high turn-over, low wages and bad bosses and also for running a strong campaign against zero-hour contracts that has captured the attention of all sectors of society in New Zealand. The real heroes of this battle though are the ordinary working people, mostly young, who have joined the union and dared to strike to win better working conditions.

In late March workers at the Auckland warehouse of clothes retailer Cotton On defeated an attempt to remove rest and meal breaks from their collective agreement. This came after the government passed legislation last year to remove a worker’s entitlement to breaks during their working day.

Organised by FIRST Union, workers pushed the issue in the media and ran a community campaign to force the company to back down. The unpopularity of the attack was demonstrated by an outpouring of support across the country. Even the right-wing media lined up to criticise Cotton On. Workers also received solidarity from Australia, where Cotton On has been resisting attempts to unionise their distribution network.

The government’s pathetic response was that if any worker is offered a contract that does not contain rest breaks ‘they should just say no’. Any working person knows that if you’re not in a union saying no to one aspect of a contract is the same as turning down a job.

Within a fortnight the company had backed down and removed their claim. The challenge ahead for workers is to use similar tactics to win more, not just to defend what they already have.

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