SPEEDO AUSTRALIA TENSIONS GROW
Byline: Patty Huntington
SYDNEY — The battle between Speedo Australia and the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union that represents Speedo workers terminated at a closed plant continues to grow in both acrimony and media visibility.
On Friday, Speedo, a unit of the Pentland Group with no affiliation with Warnaco Group, closed its Windsor manufacturing facility and terminated the 20 employees who hadn’t accepted positions elsewhere within the company, as 45 workers had. At the same time, representatives and supporters of the union staged a protest at a government office in Windsor where some of the terminated employees were receiving job counseling. While television cameras captured the scene, TCFU supporters cut up Speedo merchandise into small pieces and proclaimed they were “no longer proud the Australian swimmers had won medals in Speedo.”
Earlier last week, workers had solicited support from swimmers and other athletes requesting that they too apply pressure on Speedo. The union pointed out that the terminations were a slap in the face since many of the workers had put in overtime mending garments ripped during Olympic competition in Sydney last fall.
The latest developments follow several weeks of intensifying anger between the company and the union over Speedo’s decision to stop manufacturing in Windsor. Asserting that full-time workers are being replaced by low-cost labor in Australia and abroad, the TCFU has attempted to expose Speedo Australia’s use of contract workers under what the union claims are “sweatshop” conditions — and to put pressure on the company to suspend termination notices at the Windsor plant.
Two weeks ago, a television crew and reporters for the Daily Telegraph were on hand for a raid at Dolphin Garments in Surry Hills just a matter of hours before a conciliation meeting between the TCFU and Speedo Australia was scheduled to commence at Sydney’s Industrial Relations Commission.
Working on a Speedo contract for 2,252 men’s swimming briefs, which will retail for approximately $15.75, Dolphin Garments workers told union officials they were being paid 10 cents per sewing task that took four minutes to complete. According to the TCFU’s calculations, this netted the Dolphin workers $1.50 per hour — more than $4.50 an hour less than the hourly award wage of $6.08. According to the Daily Telegraph, moreover, an order document from Speedo dated Feb. 13th, said Dolphin would be paid $1.47 per garment.
According to the TCFU, the Dolphin workers were also being denied basic entitlements such as superannuation and worker’s compensation.
When alerted to the alleged sweatshop conditions, Speedo Australia managing director Rob Davies immediately suspended Speedo’s contract with Dolphin and launched an investigation. However, Davies said he was satisfied that the allegations were based on a “miscalculation” of accounting documents seized by the TCFU from the Dolphin offices.
“The union has just got these documents that they’ve photocopied and have overlooked the fact that there are 12 operations to making one of the garments in question,” he said. “All they’ve got on the invoice that they’ve got hold of from Dolphin, is that they’re being charged 19 cents [Australian, equivalent to 10 cents] for carrying out the operation. Using our GSD [general sewing data] we’ve compared it against the award rate for that particular operation and 19 cents is the award for that particular operation. So they’re paying award wages.”
Award wages are equivalent to minimum wages in the U.S. and are designated by sector or industry.
TCFU organizer Steve Davies — of no relation to the Speedo official — commented, “If I’ve made a genuine [miscalculation] mistake, I’ve made a genuine mistake, but it still does not alter the fact that it is illegal to pay by the piece.”
Although Rob Davies acknowledged that Dolphin is one of three Sydney factories to which Speedo Australia has regularly contracted work over the course of the past five years, he said that, in accordance with the corporate policy of its parent, Pentland, Speedo Australia had a signed human rights agreement with all these factories. Contract workers must sign this agreement and provide documentation covering wages, hours of work, overtime, annual leave, public holidays, superannuation, other leave entitlements and all other employment conditions before work can commence.
Only one of the three factories has responded to Speedo’s request that the plants guarantee that workers are not being exploited. Dolphin is one of the two which had yet to respond as of last Friday.
“If the union says these places don’t exploit their workers, and if they also conform to Pentland’s Human Rights Policy, then we’ll use them,” Davies said. “But if we can’t get those guarantees, then we won’t manufacture the product.”
Davies defended the company’s decision to continue to use such contractors in the future for “one-off” and small run jobs. “We’re selling into Speedo International’s range and they’re making 500,000 garments at a time,” he said. “If the Australian market dictated that somebody needed 50 or 100 garments, then we would make them. But I can’t keep a factory open for 50 garments.”
TCFU’s Davies acknowledged that subcontractors often assign part of their work to individuals, but noted, “Those people are getting paid so much per piece. It is illegal under the award. You cannot pay by the piece, you can only pay them an hourly rate. So they’re in breach of the award there and in a lot of cases the workers also haven’t got their superannuation [or] worker’s compensation coverage.”
The union is seeking action against Speedo’s contractors based on breaches of the Clothing Trades Award and failure to register workers. While Speedo says three contractors are involved, the union says it is moving against four facilities.
Davies of the TCFU characterized Pentland’s claim that it doesn’t source from unethical sources as untrue and said Speedo had “no idea where their garments are being made.”
He noted, “We don’t want to spoil Speedo’s name, because we want our members to be employed by Speedo. If they eventually sack them without proper consultation — and that means removing the threat of the sack — then we’ll drag them back into the bloody Commission. We’ll be seeking orders for reinstatement and whatever other remedies we can get.”