New survey of supermarket workers shows a grim reality on NZ’s shop floors

by | Jun 25, 2024 | News

A survey of more than 1500 supermarket and grocery workers from Aotearoa’s major retail chains shows that low pay, understaffing and customer abuse are causing major concern across the industry.
The survey (attached / available online HERE) shows that thousands of supermarket workers are grappling with the high cost of living while dealing with regular incidents of customer abuse in understaffed supermarkets that are typically paying the majority of workers less than the living wage, according to Rudd Hughes, FIRST Union National Secretary for Retail and Finance.
“Supermarket workers were hailed as heroes during the Covid-19 pandemic but this survey shows that they are certainly not treated that way by employers, with the majority still not fairly paid or looked after at work,” said Mr Hughes.
“It’s deeply worrying that over 90% of supermarket workers say their stores are understaffed. Understaffing is a major contributor to workers’ stress and burnout, and it makes supermarkets much more unsafe workplaces for staff than they should be.”
90.8 percent of the 1,514 respondents to the survey said their stores were understaffed, either “sometimes” (36.2 percent) “regularly” (30 percent) or “continuously” (24.7 percent). 39 percent of workers identified understaffing as the “single most important workplace issue for supermarket workers”; the most popular response to this question.
The National-NZ First-ACT coalition Government’s repeal of Fair Pay Agreement (FPA) legislation denied workers a pathway to negotiate minimum standards across the supermarket industry. While the entire workforce of Countdown/Woolworths are party to a national collective agreement (CA) for all staff, other brands like Foodstuffs (Pak’N’Save, New World) require individual negotiations with store owners, meaning thousands of hours of bargaining across the country every year, and wildly variable pay and conditions between stores.
The survey, which was completed electronically during May this year through FIRST Union’s member database and the SurveyMonkey platform, produced several other concerning statistics related to pay and conditions at New Zealand supermarkets:
  • 69 percent of supermarket workers have considered leaving their workplace over the last two years.
  • The most common reason for considering leaving was generally to look for another job in a different industry (56.8 percent), while 22.5 percent had considered another job at a different supermarket. More than a fifth of respondents had considered emigrating to Australia, while 5.8 percent had considered emigrating to another country.
  • Nearly three-quarters of respondents – 74.4 percent – said that their wages were not sufficient to cover their regular living expenses, and 61.9 percent of respondents felt that their wage increases over the last two years had not kept pace with the rising cost of living.
  • Only 21 percent of respondents said that if they received an unexpected $500 expense tomorrow, they could pay it. 53.7 percent said they could not, and 25.3 percent said they were unsure.
  • 55.5 percent of respondents believed that things were going to get worse for supermarket workers in the next year, with 36.6 percent thinking things will stay the same and less than 10% expecting things to improve.
Mr Hughes said further survey results showed abuse of staff by customers and other incidents of violence and dangerous behaviours at work were a growing problem in the industry following the pandemic.
“Almost a third of workers say they feel unsafe at work to varying extents, and almost 40 percent reported that they’ve been verbally assaulted or threatened at work in the last two years,” said Mr Hughes. “This has to be dealt with urgently, and one of the best ways to do that is providing adequate staffing levels and appropriate security in stores.”
Over 30 percent of respondents to the survey also said they’ve dealt with workplace bullying in the last two years; over 30 percent have had to confront thieves in their stores; 4.5 percent say they have been sexually harassed or assaulted at work and 2.2 percent say they’ve been spat on.
“No one should have to deal with regular and sustained danger and abuse at work, and least of all those who aren’t even paid a living wage and have few prospects for improvements in the workplace,” said Mr Hughes.
“The survey indicates that around a quarter of respondents have worked in their current role for more than a decade, but we received many comments from people who say new arrivals at work are being paid the same low wages and their experience has not been tangibly rewarded or appreciated by managers throughout their careers.”
“That represents an industry dependent on precarious, low-wage labour, with no structure in place for people to gain experience and make a career in their local supermarket – it’s their loss, and it’s a loss for customers too.”
Mr Hughes said the survey’s conclusions would be key in outlining minimum standards for FIRST Union’s upcoming bargaining with all major chains.
“There is no reason that the supermarket duopoly should have the power to suppress fair wage growth and leave an entire industry so understaffed, underpaid and stressed-out – it doesn’t have to be this way, and our members and delegates will be looking to change that course over the coming year.”

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