Address from Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra to Jobs and Skills Summit

As a retailer, I’d like to acknowledge First Nations people as Australia’s first traders, and I pay my respect to elders past and present

We say ‘never waste a crisis’ and at the ARA we believe the current labour crisis provides the opportunity to make a powerful shift towards safer, fairer and more productive workplaces.

As we emerge from a pandemic, which has both challenged and strengthened our teams, and called many practices into question, there has never been a more important time for reassessment, innovation and a true win-win approach.

The retail industry is Australia’s largest private employer, employing 1 in 10 Australians, and we are ready, willing and able to play our part.

There’ll be plenty of proposals up for debate over the next two days.

The ARA, along with many other groups here, have put forward their suggestions to government.

Our initiatives revolve around:

  • Mobilising more mature age workers
  • Improving the affordability and flexibility of childcare
  • Increasing investment in retail traineeships to future-proof the sector and provide more employment opportunities
  • Pursuing greater flexibility in part-time work arrangements for both employer and employee
  • Seeking national consistency around workforce participation for teenagers;
  • And increasing the skilled migration intake, with a focus on hard-to-fill digital and data roles.

We don’t expect consensus on everything… but let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture and the reason why we’re here… Let’s commit ourselves to bold reforms that will accelerate our economic recovery.

Focussing on today’s panel and starting with safe workplaces…. it goes well beyond managing physical hazards or implementing a zero tolerance approach to bullying or harassment, all of which is important

Employees want to be safe and feel comfortable in an environment where they can be their true selves.

This is particularly true of younger workers, many of whom will have their first job in retail or hospitality and have grown up expecting to bring their full selves to everything they do in life.

Or women who have to make their families invisible just to keep their jobs or to get ahead.

We must improve diversity, equality and inclusion, not just for this younger generation and women but right across our workforce.

Fairness at work can be defined by a win | win approach – having a sense of mutual obligation and ensuring there is mutual benefit between employer and employee.

Within retail we are paying close attention to the workforce shifts that have emerged from the pandemic.

Covid created enormous shifts in the way our teams view their work and how and when they want to work. It shouldn’t take a ‘Great Resignation’ to highlight the need to respond to these changing expectations and needs.

And indeed, many in our retail community have been rising to the challenges of increased demand for flexible work environments and more employee benefits.

In this year’s annual wage review, we did support and recommend a wage increase for our people. However, it needed to be sustainable, and aligned to the underlying rate of inflation.

We saw this as a fair compromise between cost-of-living pressures for employees and the higher costs of doing business for our members.

We knew this was also a win|win because a high proportion of higher wages comes back into retail as discretionary spending.

With so many Australians starting their working life in retail or hospitality, our sector also has an important role to play in setting expectations about fair and equitable work relationships that we hope remains a benchmark through someone’s entire career.

Finally on productive workplaces…

In our wage review submission, we said that any increase in wages above underlying inflation would need to be offset by productivity gains.

And as we see the impacts of sustained supply chain challenges, labour shortages and severe cost of doing business increases impact our sector, improving productivity continues to be a critical need and an ongoing challenge.

Improved productivity is another win I win outcome, and diverse workplaces are more productive workplaces. When our teams are more productive, it improves morale, elevates resources and reduces the overall demands on our staff particularly during a labour crisis.

Workplaces with elevated productivity, be it through education, technology or other investments, form a stronger workforce with more reliable career pathways, and more cause to pursue them.

For our sector, productivity doesn’t require big structural reform.

It’s simply a function of providing greater flexibility in part-time secure work arrangements that allow businesses to commit to base hours and be able to flex-up hours to meet consumer demand whilst also providing more employees with the option of more hours.

Creating a safer, fairer and productive workplace should be in everyone’s interest- employees, employers, unions and government.

Finding a work placement for every Australian who wants a job – First Nations People, people living with a disability, older Australians and women – needs to be a priority for employers, unions and government.

Finding a work placement for every Australian who wants a job – First Nations people, people living with a disability, older Australians and women especially, needs to be a priority for employers, union and government.

We have an opportunity to find the 3.4% of workers who are unemployed strong, secure jobs, and retail remains a great opportunity if we can all work together.

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