Trolley collectors of the world unite!

It’s a classic case of ‘David versus Goliath’ – in one corner, Coles – one of Australia’s biggest supermarket chains; in the other, the often overlooked men and women who collect their trolleys. You can read more here.

In summary, the giant was slain (okay, I’m going too far with the metaphor); in fact, the supermarket was penalised by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) for the “gross underpayment” of these workers. I chose that last word – ‘workers’ - carefully, as it goes to the heart of the matter. Essentially, the Coles defence rested on the idea that the trolley collectors were contractors and not direct employees. So, they could – in the words of the FWO’s Natalie James – “wipe [their] hands of the problem.” Not so; Ms James was unequivocal in her agency’s appetite to address big business’ exploitation of workers. Her words – “we will look up to the business at the top” – will leave corporate boardrooms with no doubt where the responsibility for such elaborate supply chains lie.

The episode is also a notable case of issue mismanagement; to clarify, issues are those situations which if left unattended have the potential to significantly affect a business – I would suggest that workers underpaid to the tune of six-figure sums is significant. In fairness, it has to be said that Coles has back-paid the workers in question and established a $500,000 fund for others who could also have been affected. 

However, the developments clearly illustrate the seemingly unrelated nature of issues – in that they are not related to us, so we don’t need to worry about them. This is an important point as it should challenge the commonly held mindset among senior teams that reputation management is exclusively about what we as a business do – our people, our products, our prices. Yet, the people who also carry out duties under our name as third parties are rashly overlooked. It’s a point that was writ large following the BP response to the blowout on the Transocean owned Deepwater Horizon and should have been enshrined across the collective executive, but it would appear that memories are short and to that end, reminders will continue to be painful.