Warehouse boss clashes with union over job losses


The chief executive says First Union is being "liberal with the truth" in claiming some of the 1000 workers facing the chop found out via social media. The union says that's "bullshit".

The Warehouse Group is shedding about 1000 jobs in a restructure it says has been accelerated by COVID-19.

The group that also owns Noel Leeming is looking to shut down an additional six stores, including branches in Te Awamutu and Tokoroa, on top of three already earmarked for closure. 

Up to 130 positions will be axed from head office, plus 950 full and part-time jobs at stores as the company shifts to an 'agile operating model' in line with changing shopping habits and an anticipated downturn due to the pandemic.

"Agile is a business operating mechanism that replaces the hierarchical command and control mechanism that's already been around for over 100 years," chief executive Nick Grayston told Checkpoint.

"It's all about being firstly very customer-focused, secondly, becoming much more efficient, nimble and faster executing… Companies that have gone agile, they report in a minimum of about 30 percent improvement in employee engagement."

Grayston said the vast majority of the redundancies would be in the red stores. "In total, it could be up to 540 full-time equivalents. That 1080 number includes a lot of part-timers."

He said the company's ability to re-roster and redeploy people was "restricted" by the staff collective agreement.

"It's about being able to serve our customers better. We see the business changing as a result of more business going online. And so having people there to serve customers how they need to be served, making sure we've got people on the registers at the time that people are shopping rather than where they were rostered historically."

Consultation with staff facing redundancy had not happened yet, Grayston said.

"I have been in the office today and as you can appreciate with social distancing and still being at level 2, we're having to structure how people come to the office. I've been in touch with the whole company by video today to announce these changes.

"There are six stores that we're going into consultation about closure. We consulted with Birkenhead, and that one is now confirmed.

"We consulted first and after the conclusion of that consultation we gave notice," Grayston told Checkpoint, but notice had not been given yet on any other stores.

Other stores facing closure include the Noel Leeming Henderson Clearance Centre and Tokoroa store, The Warehouse Whangaparaoa, Johnsonville and Dunedin Central stores, and Warehouse Stationery Te Awamutu. They were notified of potential closure on Monday.

FIRST Union national co-ordinator for The Warehouse Kate Davis told Checkpoint she was incensed about how Grayston had handled the matter.

"I've spoken to a customer just in tears. Today I've been talking to workers pretty much all day. They're devastated," Davis said.

"The hardest part of this was calling a worker to see if she would do media, to find out that she hadn't been told. This worker in Tokoroa, I broke the news to her she did not know and this is at 1pm. Other workers online have got in touch with me to say that they found out on social media."

In response to Grayston's claim there had been a period of consultation, Davis said: "Would they have a timeline for that and would they like to supply it perhaps to me and the workers?"

"We never like doing this, as I said," Grayston told Checkpoint.

"We are a chain of about 258 stores, we continually assess our store network and its appropriateness to be able to serve our customers, and to work within a viable operating model," he said.

"There's a lot of aggressive overseas competition both in the digital sense and in terms of overseas competition coming. And so in order to better protect the rump of our business and make sure that we're still able to provide value for New Zealanders, we will need to make sure we manage our costs appropriately going forward."

In response to the complaint that staff were not notified properly, Grayston accused the union of being "liberal with the truth", and said regional managers were tasked with informing the stores, but he would check.

"They were [informed], I'm told, in store at the time."

"Bullshit," First Union's Davis said. "We're not being liberal with the truth, we're doing what we do and... standing up for our workers. In the case of Birkenhead, they asked 50 workers for feedback on the day they gave notice to the landlord.

"I'm not being liberal with the truth, I'm repeating what happened. And that was answered by five of the management saying that they cared about the staff, and they cared about the feedback, when that's transparently not true."

The Warehouse Group has claimed $68 million in wage subsidies, which has enabled the company to keep people employed during lockdown, Grayston said.

The company did not intend to make a claim in the second round of subsidies, he said.

Davis said she was questioning whether more stores owned by The Warehouse Group would be closed across New Zealand.

"They made $70 million last year, they've just had $50 million in subsidy," Davis said.

She also criticised the closure of stores in regional New Zealand. 

"They've said that it's the bottom performing stores. Can they supply us with a list of the stores and how they rank? Because again, that might be quite helpful. What does that mean in a town like [Te Awamutu] when there is no other work and Bunnings have just pulled out? It means your whole life is disrupted.

"When it comes to Bunnings, if they want to pull out of the regions there's not a lot we can do about that, but New Zealanders should be appalled and they should be angry that The Warehouse is pulling out of provinces or the regions at a time like this.

"Nick Grayston is not being a team of five million. He is being a person who puts profit and greed before need.

"If I had to pick who was made redundant it wouldn't be the workers. It would be Nick Grayston and his comms team, if they think that what they have done today is anywhere near good enough."