Checking Out Supermarket Labour Usage: The Nature of Labour Usage and Employment Relations Consequences in a Food Retail Firm in Australia

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Peetz, David

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Loudoun, Rebecca

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This thesis examines the nature of labour usage within a market-leading Australian food retail firm and the employment relations consequences of the labour usage strategies employed by the firm. Retail employment is well established as a research subject in the UK, but has received comparatively little research attention in Australia. Given that retail industry employment accounts for 15 per cent of the Australian workforce, this represents a significant oversight. Within the retail industry, the supermarket and grocery sector employs 6 per cent of the Australian workforce. The sector is dominated by two major chains and is highly competitive, with a reputation for low profit margins, mundane jobs and low pay. The sector is recognised for an employment structure that is segmented with one segment holding full-time jobs with core employment conditions and the other segment, part-time jobs with poor working conditions. The dominant theory used by scholars to explain this employment structure is the dual labour market model and later iterations such as Atkinson's flexible firm model. This research assesses the value of these models, in particular Atkinson's flexible firm model, as a representation of the labour usage strategies of a market-leading Australian food retail firm. This analysis demonstrates that, in a general sense, Atkinson's model has applicability to the labour usage strategies exhibited in food retailing. The research found that, contrary to the theories of dual labour markets, a strong internal labour market operated within the firm with short hours casual employment as the port of entry. The benefits of this practice for the organisation were flexibility in labour usage and substantial wage savings, while the negative consequences were recruitment difficulties, exacerbated by high levels of staff turnover. For the employees, the consequences depended on their position in the organisational hierarchy and their individual circumstances, but involved initially accepting limited working hours and low pay in order to gain entry into the organisation. The research undertaken for this thesis leads to the development of a revised model, the casual internal labour market model, which more accurately depicts the labour usage strategies within the case study organisation. Retail researchers argue that it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the industry in order to understand the structure of labour usage. Additionally, employment relations and retail researchers both stress the need to contextualise labour usage patterns within broader environmental constraints and supply side factors. In seeking to achieve this, this research examines business strategies, retail specific employment relations literature and the Australian employment relations context. Furthermore, this study addresses the issue of retail employment strategies at several levels within one of Australia's market-leading food retailers: corporate level, store level and at the level of individual departments within the store. In doing so, this thesis highlights the differences in labour usage between stores and between departments within the stores and thereby provides a more detailed picture of the labour use practices within food retailers.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of Industrial Relations

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empoyment relations

employee relations

workplace relations



grocery stores

grocery retail

food retail

food retailing



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