Landmark EBA for staff at Sydney bookstore a “one off” unlikely to catch on elsewhere: Peter Strong

The new enterprise bargaining agreement struck between employers and management at independent Sydney bookstore Better Read Than Dead is a “one off” unlikely to spark similar agreements nationwide, according to former bookstore owner and small business advocate Peter Strong.

However, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, which represented staff in the landmark discussions, said it is open to working with the employees of other bookstores and retailers nationwide as they pursue their own updated workplace agreements.

After nearly two years of high-profile discussions and industrial action by Better Read Than Dead staff, the Fair Work Commission last week approved a new EBA covering the bookstore’s employees.

Under the new agreement, the lowest pay offered to adults on a non-casual basis is $22.38, one dollar over the national minimum wage, rising to $24.22 after 12 months’ service.

Adult casuals can expect no less than $27.96 an hour. Sunday penalty rates will be paid at 200% of full and part-time wages, and 225% of casual wages.

The EBA provides a pathway for casuals to convert to full and part-time work.

It also includes 26 weeks of paid parental leave, and up to 20 days of paid leave for those experiencing family or domestic violence.

“In a practical sense, the conditions in the agreement are a landmark for the retail and fast food settings,” RAFFWU secretary Josh Cullinan told SmartCompany.

“And that’s because workers in retail and fast food have simply not had reasonable terms and conditions and their work for very, very many years.”

A number of Better Read Than Dead workers have celebrated the new EBA on social media.

But the new EBA will serve as a “Pyrrhic victory” for employees given the financial impact it could have on the business, says former Council of Small Business Organisations CEO Peter Strong.

“Bookshops are not highly profitable businesses in any way, shape or form,” he said. “You don’t see many bookshop owners driving around in the most expensive cars. It’s a labour of love.”

“I don’t know how you can run a business based upon the conditions that they’re negotiating… This is an aberration and I hope it stays that way,” he added.

Strong also questioned the need for family and domestic violence leave to be codified in the EBA, saying small business owners often know if an employee is facing hardship outside the workplace and can act appropriately on that knowledge.

Cullinan defended the inclusion of family and domestic violence leave provisions within the EBA, saying that having such workplace protections in writing is important for survivors.

“Unless these provisions are clearly articulated in enforceable agreements, the people that experience family and domestic violence will not access them,” he said.

“Unless they can see them and know that they’re an enforceable entitlement, not something that they have to go and request, or beg for, or hope the employer will look kindly upon them; when they know that it’s an enforceable entitlement, they will access it.”

“To their credit”, Cullinan added, Better Read Than Dead management “stood up early and said that they would provide” family and domestic violence leave in the agreement.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Alexi Boyd, the current COSBOA CEO, said the organisations’ members do not currently see workers joining unions as a significant concern.

Strong said it was “nonsensical” for staff at a small business to seek their own EBA, given the cost it could have on the business through negotiations and the likelihood of small staff numbers to turn over before the agreements even come into effect.

While acknowledging a “general store in a country town where the kids of the owners work” may not be an ideal candidate for unionisation, Cullinan said concerns like Better Read Than Dead are significantly different.

“There are obviously some small businesses which listen to their workers and engage with them and build them into the business… But that doesn’t mean those workers shouldn’t be unionised and shouldn’t be organised, and collectively negotiating responsibly and professionally with their employer to get a fair share of the profit,” he said.

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