By Claire Reilly

Last week, Fair Work Australia handed down a decision to allow the reduction of minimum shift times for students from 3 hours to 1.5 hours, following an unsuccessful appeal by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association.

Following the news, the heads of the Australian Retailers Association and the National Retail Association came out praising the ruling, calling it a win for students rights.

However, the national secretary of the SDA, Joe de Bruyn, has told that the employee advocacy group was “very disappointed” by the decision, and that it would ultimately leave retail workers much worse off.

“What’s been put into the award is now operational, despite our best efforts,” said de Bruyn. “Young working people…are now vulnerable to employers using this to pick those people prepared to work the shorter shift.

“I think two things will happen. One is that employers can now use school kids for an hour and a half where previously they couldn’t. So it means adults working in a store finishing up at the end of the day are now likely to be told, ‘Sorry, but the last one and a half hours of your day are now going to be taken off you because we’ve got a cheaper school kid who can come in and do it’.

“So I think there’s going to be a replacement of the older existing day-time workers with school kids. And there is no protection whatsoever in the new award provision to prevent that.

“Secondly, retailers will shop around amongst young kids. If a young person says, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ then they simply get passed over for jobs because the retailer can find somebody who will take the one and a half hours.”

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While the ARA and NRA insist that they were standing up for students’ rights in fighting the SDA appeal, de Bruyn doesn’t agree.

“What the position of Fair Work Australia has done is to take away people’s rights,” he said. “They had a right to a three-hour minimum and that’s been taken away. And nobody could argue that a right to one and a half hours is better than 3 hours.

“It’s just inadequate.

“Who is doing that work now between 4 and 5.30? It’s being done by the existing day-time employees. They’re the ones that are going to lose that work. They’re likely to be adults on an adult rate, and they’ll be replaced by school kids on a junior rate. That’s exploitation.”

As far as the legal process was concerned, de Bruyn said he stood by his previous comments, made to Appliance Retailer magazine in August 2011, that the ARA and NRA are “both incompetent when it comes to running industrial cases”.

“Fair Work Australia has granted what the employers asked for without them [the ARA and NRA] putting up a case. That in itself is fundamentally wrong,” he said. “They went in with an application, put up no evidence, and they still won. We had reams and reams of evidence and we lost. That is wrong in principle.

“But the issue won’t go away. I think the more that retailers use this ruling and exploit it, the better the argument will be at some future point to go back to Fair Work Australia and basically say, ‘We told you so – people are being exploited, here is the evidence, now wake up to yourself and reverse the decision'.

“I think with a bit of experience as to how this is used, the basis is there for arguing the matter afresh.”