Wages down, hypocrisy up: Coles cries poor over self-service shoplifting while slashing staff and cutting costs

Retail giant Coles has taken the unusual step of holding a press conference to lash out at customers who take advantage of self-service checkouts to steal the odd onion or avocado. If Coles are to be believed, shoplifting is a real and genuine threat (to their profit margins) that needs to be taken care of immediately — so much so that they’ve used their power and influence to get the NSW State Police to lend a hand.

Astonishingly, Coles somehow forgot to mention at their press conference late last week that they — along with their newfound friends Woolworths, who took the stand with them — have actually managed to use those very same self-service checkouts to drive their wages bill to the lowest level since 2004, increasing their sales at the same time.

Coles also somehow forgot to mention their very recent public humiliation when the Fair Work Commission tore up their dodgy pay deal and threw it away — a pay deal that, if it had been allowed to go through, would have saved Coles an estimated $100 million in wage costs every year.

Evidence from those Fair Work Commission hearings showed that Coles and the SDA knew the pay deal would result in a large percentage of their employees who relied on penalty rates being worse off but pushed it through anyway, even going so far as to complain to the Commission that altering it so it actually complied with the law would take too much time and cost too much money.

Coles boss John Durkan had a whine about this at Chamber of Commerce event earlier this year, arguing that Australia’s already weakened enterprise bargaining laws need to be watered down even further. If you believe Mr. Durkan, it’s actually (somehow) in the best interests of Coles customers that Coles employees not be allowed to stand up and fight back when their pay is slashed, and that taking penalty rates away from Coles employees (somehow) helps Coles customers.

How nice that Coles are so concerned with the feelings of the very same public who are also, apparently, unspeakable apple-stealing criminals that must be crushed by the state.

In fact Coles’ spokesperson at the conference must have been having a really bad day, because they also forgot to mention that Coles is currently enjoying fantastic profit growth– a result which couldn’t possibly be related to self-service checkouts driving their wages bill to a record low, right?

Coles and Woolworths are also directly responsible for triggering a milk industry crisis by slashing the amount they’re willing to pay to farmers. Their reckless need to price milk as low as possible has forced the government to step in and use public money to prop up multi-generational farming families who are now being forced out of a once-proud industry.

That, too, did not come up at the press conference – although apparently using public money and public apparatus to subsidise the fallout from their own cost-cutting measures is now a standard tactic in the Big Grocery Playbook.

It is beyond hypocritical for an enormously stable and profitable company like Coles to try and frame the public as the bogeyman while at the same time doing everything possible to lower the living conditions of their own suppliers and staff. Diverting state resources away from desperately needed community policing solutions towards scrutinising people’s plastic bags at the checkout is an absurd response and Coles should be ashamed of themselves.