30 May 2011

Bookstore staff 'forced to sign contracts under duress'

10:25 pm on 30 May 2011

Workers at Whitcoulls and Borders bookstores have been forced to sign new contracts under duress, unions say.

New Zealand-owned James Pascoe Group bought 57 Whitcoulls and five Borders stores for an undisclosed sum last week after the Australian-based owner REDgroup put itself into voluntary administration in February.

James Pascoe Group is a retail business owned by David and Anne Norman that employs 9000 staff throughout New Zealand and Australia. Companies include the Farmers department stores, homeware retailer Stevens and jewellers Pascoes, Stewart Dawsons, Prouds and Goldmark.

The Unite and National Distribution Union say they intend to challenge the legality of the contacts.

Unite national director Mile Treen says staff at Borders were told to sign the new contracts by 4pm on Monday, or they would lose their jobs.

Mr Treen says this is illegal and the union will challenge the company in court, but in the meantime, has advised staff to sign.

"We don't want people to risk their jobs; if they have to sign, they have to sign. But I think most people would recognise the duress involved in that.

"The courts have in the past invalidated contracts that have been signed under duress. I hope that that may be the case for this employer in this case."

Mr Treen says not only is redundancy not included in the new contract, but staff are being asked to sign away previous redundancy agreements before the sale.

The National Distribution Union says staff it represents at Whitcoulls have also had work conditions reduced and were asked to sign contracts by the end of Monday.

NDU general secretary Robert Reid says employees were asked to sign away any right to take claim for redundancy or any other grievance with the previous employer.

Mr Reid told Checkpoint there is no redundancy provision in the new agreement, nor overtime or future long service leave.

"The reason that the Normans ... have given in one of their rare interviews was to treat workers the same as all other workers in the Pascoes group. But we have a collective agreement with Farmers - and that Farmers agreement has redundancy pay in it (and) long service provisions."

Mr Reid says some workers only got the contract at 10am on Monday and were expected to sign it by 5pm saying they had taken independent advice "which is a nonsense".

The new owners are taking advantage of the fact that staff are happy just to have a job, he says.