‘Conflict of interest’
Union accused of putting rescue sale before employee claims
AUSTRALIA’S biggest retail union has been lashed by the workplace umpire for deliberately failing to file unfair dismissal claims for three Harris Scarfe workers amid concerns it would jeopardise a rescue sale.
The Fair Work Commission has ruled the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association knowingly acted against the best interests of three former Harris Scare employees when it decided to hold off filing unfair dismissal claims on their behalf within the required 21 days.
Without the employees being informed, the SDA’s national executive took that decision after being told by the Harris Scarfe administrator the legal challenges would jeopardise a looming sale of the fallen department store chain, which continued to employ 1200 workers.
The SDA had previously told the employees, who were made redundant from two Harris Scarfe stores in regional Tasmania in late March, it would file unfair dismissal claims.
Harris Scarfe was put in voluntary administration in early December after being purchased by private equity firm Allegro Capital. The union has previously been criticised for being too close to employers.
In his rulings, Fair Work Commission deputy president Tony Saunders said the SDA had failed to properly address the “clear conflict of interest” it had in balancing the rights of the members who asked it to file unfair dismissal claims against concern for the ongoing employment of the wider Harris Scarfe workforce.
“In my view, it is unusual or uncommon for a member of a union to provide clear instructions to their union and then maintain regular communication with their union, but not be informed that the union had made a deliberate decision to act in a manner inconsistent with their best interests,” Mr Saunders said.
Mr Saunders said the SDA should have provided the employees with independent legal advice and representation when it became clear they would not meet the deadline to file unfair dismissal applications. “No doubt any such independent adviser would have recommended that the applicant lodge her claim within the 21-day period,” he said in the decisions made last month.
“Alternatively ... the SDA could have explained all the circumstances to the applicant and allowed her to make an informed decision as to whether to lodge her application within the 21-day period.”
Mr Saunders granted all three employees a time extension to file their claims, noting it appeared Harris Scarfe had failed to engage in the required consultation period before making them redundant.
The SDA rejected the suggestion it had mishandled the cases or that it should have provided independent legal advice, arguing the workers were ultimately granted extensions to file their claims. “No one has been disadvantaged, neither the worker concerned nor the other employees in the store,” national secretary Gerard Dwyer said.