‘You’re not a person in there’: Former flower supplier workers allege sweatshop conditions
Former employees of the largest flower supplier in the southern hemisphere say they were bullied, harassed and verbally abused under "sweatshop" conditions for years while working at the company's Australian warehouses.
- Former warehouse workers say they witnessed mistreatment of mostly foreign employees
- They allege there was a culture of harassment, intimidation and fear preventing them from speaking out
- The bullying intensified at busy times of the year like Mother's Day, Easter and Valentine's Day
Lynch Group employs hundreds of people at its warehouses around the country and is the principal supplier of flowers to supermarket chains Woolworths, Coles and Aldi.
Former workers who spoke to the ABC said they witnessed mistreatment of mostly foreign workers at warehouses in Melbourne and Sydney between 2013 and 2017.
Senior staff made racial taunts directed at employees, many of them of Asian origin, who felt they could not make a complaint for fear of losing their job.
There was a culture of harassment and intimidation at the Melbourne and Sydney warehouses, the former workers said, that prevented them from speaking out.
The bullying intensified at busy times of the year like Valentine's Day and Easter, when employees were working longer hours.
Former workers also allege that safety was not treated as a priority, and proper machinery training was not offered to new employees.
'You're not a person in there'
Melanie, who worked in the Derrimut warehouse in western Melbourne for four months last year, said work conditions were appalling.
"Honestly, it's like a sweatshop. It's like walking into a completely different world. You just wouldn't expect that here," she said.
"They need the numbers. It's a lot of flowers that need to go out and they need those people to do the work so it's at any expense. If you're not going to do it, they'll find someone who will."
Melanie said the majority of factory workers were employed on a casual basis and worried that complaining about harassment or verbal abuse could lead to losing their job.
"You're not a person in there," she said.
"You're just a number to get what they need out of you. There's no care at all. If you hurt yourself there, too bad."
Melanie said she was never given any proper training to do her job and often was required to work with moving machinery like conveyor belts.
"There's no training at all. Nobody tells you what to do, and then they tell you to walk, but you've got to hurry up and people are running for flowers, and it's just chaotic."
Former Hong Kong employee Sarah* worked in the western Sydney warehouse in 2013 on a working holiday visa and said at least half her colleagues were foreign nationals.
"If the girls couldn't understand what they said, [the supervisor] would be super angry and would call them 'stupid Taiwanese' or 'stupid Chinese' or stuff like that," she said.
Several former employees said if someone was reprimanded more than once in this way, they were shouted at and sent home as punishment.
"It was really stressful to work there because you need to be alert all the time, and try to make sure they don't send you home," she said.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for Lynch Group said claims made by the former workers have not previously been raised with the company either by employees or the union.
"The Lynch Group has a zero tolerance policy towards bullying and discrimination in any form and takes allegations of this nature extremely seriously," the spokesperson said.
"We have a strong track record as an employer of which we are very proud and strive to create a safe, fair and positive culture."
A workplace culture of fear
National Union of Workers general branch secretary Sam Roberts said the union has been aware of health and safety problems plaguing Lynch Group for "a long time".
He said the Lynch Group workers have historically been fearful of raising any issues they encountered.
"In the industry generally, health and safety is a significant issue, whether it's workers out on the farms or workers distributing the product in the warehouses," Mr Roberts said.
Another former employee Freya* said overwork and pressure to meet enormous demand was at its worst around celebration days like Mother's Day.
"[They] push and push people, to push them further and harder. I'd describe it as bullying, just outright bullying and putting people under pressure," she said.
"Nobody would ever say anything back. I saw people who walked out crying because [certain senior staff were] that mean to them. If you stood up for yourself, see you later. Everybody knew that."
A Woolworths spokesperson said the company treats any alleged breach of law by a supplier seriously and will review the allegations internally.
The spokesperson added: "We continue to place the utmost importance on our responsibility to source products ethically for our customer."
An Aldi Australia spokesperson said the company would be in touch with Lynch Group to clarify the circumstances of the allegations.
"We do not condone behaviour of misconduct and assert that suppliers must comply with Australian labour and human rights laws," the spokesperson said.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has provided advice to employees of Lynch Group in response to "a number of enquiries", a spokesperson said, and previously assisted some workers to recover entitlements without enforcement.
Coles did not respond to a request for comment.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals in this story.