Coronavirus: Retailers forcing staff to work 'a much more serious' risk to NZ than 'nutbar' Billy Te Kahika - union

Retailers who force non-essential staff to do work onsite are a bigger threat to New Zealand's response to the COVID-19 outbreak than "nutbars" like Billy Te Kahika, according to one of the country's biggest unions.

Newshub has received numerous complaints from staff and their families alleging breaches of alert level 4 guidelines at their workplaces. 

Under level 4, only essential workers are permitted to leave their homes for work - but many bosses have decided to "take the piss", FIRST Union national retail organiser Ben Peterson told Newshub on Friday, saying many employers were "pushing the boundaries" when it comes to what counts as essential work. 

Most complaints Newshub has received in the past 24 hours have been about electronics and furniture retailer Harvey Norman.

One person said their husband and all his colleagues were told to come in "as usual… and break their bubbles just to help ship orders for online services", with no allowances made for social distancing.

"If my husband doesn't attend he will be forced to take holiday or sick leave. We are worried and uncomfortable… my husband has asthma and if he is exposed to COVID he would be very vulnerable." 

A member of the public said they saw 18 cars parked outside the Harvey Norman store in Mt Wellington, while neighbouring shops were deserted.

"My husband told them to go home through the window and one of the staff pulled the finger at him."

On Thursday, Newshub quoted a staff member who said bosses "requested we make deliveries and assemble customers' products in their homes" - a clear breach of level 4 restrictions. A former employee who read that story contacted Newshub to say the retailer "had no regard for lockdown rules and staff were bullied into coming in and working" during the March/April 2020 lockdown. 

"Staff members with children… were also told by management that we had to send out children to school as Harvey Norman was deemed an essential service, despite that not being the case at the time…. Whilst I thankfully don’t work there now, I have very little reason to believe anything would have changed since then."

Harvey Norman declined to comment for this story. 

Kmart is another large retailer that's fallen offside with staff and FIRST Union. As Newshub reported on Thursday, Kmart has reportedly been requiring staff at all of its stores to come in to work. 

FIRST Union's Peterson  told Newshub they have had a good relationship with Kmart in the past, praising their early adoption of initiatives like the living wage. He said it appears Kmart is making staff come in to process online orders, even for non-essential items, taking advantage of the lack of other shopping options at present.

"It gives us no joy to be kicking them right now," said Peterson. "But the way they're doing that will compel others to try and keep up."

One Newshub reader told us their daughter was ordered into work "and fill the online orders or they won't get paid... this is a very scary time for our country but it makes me so angry that kmart can treat their workers like this."

Kmart's website still has non-essential items for sale, but a note saying they won't be shipped until after the lockdown. 

"That's not fair to consumers," said Peterson. "What does that mean if I go on because I need a baby bottle, but because it's on the website I throw in a novelty pillow, does that mean my order's not going to be put through?"

A spokesperson for the company confirmed to Newshub all of their stores were operating "for essential items only in line with announced Government restrictions".

"Customers can order anything on the website, but only orders with 100 percent essential items will be shipped - nonessential items will be shipped when the current restrictions are lifted. 

"The health and wellbeing of our team members, customers and community remains our number one priority and we are committed to ensuring all safety precautions are taken to keep everyone safe. We’ll continue to comply with all directions from the New Zealand Government."

Peterson said requiring all staff to work as usual was a risk to New Zealand's COVID-19 response - much more so than protesters who took to the streets this week. A number of people were arrested in Auckland and Christchurch and charged with breaching the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act. Among them were conspiracy theorist and failed politician Billy Te Kahika and far-right former YouTuber Vinny Eastwood

"Billy TK and the anti-lockdown clowns… I've got no sympathy for them, I think they're dangerous nutbars," said Peterson, "but at the same time Kmart has opened two dozen stores and brought hundreds of people in unnecessarily. That's a real risk in a much more serious way than a few lunatics at TVNZ waving signs and getting arrested.

"The lunatic fringe is actually a much smaller problem…. a half-dozen people having a little protest is not a serious threat to the lockdown but major organisations compelling everyone to turn up to work unnecessarily creates dozens of potential spread points and moves a lot of people out of their bubbles that shouldn't be."

While those arrested on the streets are facing fines or jail time, Peterson doubted the same consequences would be applied to retailers putting their staff at risk.

"If they come out of this [with huge sales] then the risk will be worth them doing it. And that just really sucks. It sends the message we'll take a hardline approach to nutters from Facebook groups but we'll let major organisations take the piss and put us all at risk." 

Kmart and Harvey Norman are not the only companies that have been accused of putting their staff at risk during alert level 4. Newshub has heard from staff at several others with similar concerns. We've asked all of them to respond to the allegations, and hope to bring you those in a future story.