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Hours of work

The inquiry observed that cleaners in Woolworths’ supermarkets are typically required to attend work late at night or early in the morning when the store is not open. While the time the cleaners attend is negotiated between the cleaning business and the relevant store manager, cleaners are required to complete their duties prior to the store opening.

The inquiry found Coles cleaning employees work within store opening hours and can be clearly identified as Coles staff by the public. Similarly, cleaning in Tasmanian IGA supermarkets visited by the FWO was performed by employees as part of their everyday duties.

Case Study

An early morning unannounced visit to a Woolworths supermarket highlighted the value of on-site inspections between 3.00 am and 7.00 am when cleaners were performing work. One of the cleaners, who was not wearing any identification or uniform, let the Fair Work Inspectors in to the store. Following a head count of cleaning staff, inspectors identified three cleaners and commenced individual site visit questionnaires with them.

While upstairs interviewing one of the cleaners, inspectors heard a noise from a nearby toilet area and discovered an additional cleaner hiding inside, speaking on his mobile phone. This employee advised inspectors that he started work at 6.00 am, despite the interview taking place at 5.30 am.

Prior to the site visit, the employer had provided documents to the inquiry indicating that two people cleaned this site for two hours each day.

Any large additional cleaning work, such as strip and polish work, is performed outside of store opening hours. Coles engages contractors for major floor strip and polish requirements which occur approximately every three to four months depending on the site’s flooring type. The inquiry found that this work is contracted to one principal contractor, the work performance is coordinated by a Coles manager, and Coles staff remain onsite during the work. This suggests that Coles is more likely to be aware of who is carrying out strip and polish work in their store. Nonetheless, measures such as Cleaning Accountability Framework certification would provide an additional level of security against subcontractors failing to meet their workplace relations obligations.

Case Study

Cleaners at one site informed the inquiry that they had endured a very stressful night conducting strip and polish work at a store. The store was not connected to the three supermarkets which are the subject of this inquiry, but a common contractor was involved. The cleaners advised Fair Work Inspectors that they had been locked into the store for the night by the store’s duty manager, and were unable to leave the premises until the duty manager arrived at the store the next day. The next day, the cleaners informed their contractor, Contractor A, that this had occurred. Contractor A told them that this was required by the store and he was unable to change it. A referral to Worksafe Tasmania was made due to the FWO’s concerns over the employees’ work health and safety.

The inquiry observed a number of cleaners from Korea, India, Nepal and Pakistan who were prepared to work for low wages in order to secure employment and work with others from similar cultural backgrounds. Moreover, some workers informed the inquiry that if they were to make a complaint against their employer it would bring shame upon them (the employee) and not the employer.

A number of temporary visa holders were observed to have worked ‘off the books’ and were paid in cash. Under the Migration Act 1958, student visa holders are only permitted to work 40 hours per fortnight while their course is running. The FWO has previously observed in other contexts that employees who were subject to student visas may work ‘off the books’ by undertaking more hours of work than their visas permitted. This may be initiated by the employee because they perceive that this suits them or by the employer requiring the employee to do so.

Many of the workers at Woolworths sites contacted in this inquiry provided information to Inspectors which indicated that they were vulnerable to coercion, loyal to their cultural community and grateful to have a job in Australia. Many advised the FWO that they felt they would lose their job if they spoke out against their employer and they would struggle to find any employment within their community.

Some overseas students advised Inspectors of the appeal of undertaking cleaning work when they needed additional income as it was an easy way to enter and exit the business. These workers informed the inquiry that contraventions of workplace laws had occurred. However, when Inspectors sought further insights, the same workers were reluctant to provide specific information that would lead to their employer ‘getting into trouble’ with the FWO.

In the FWO’s experience, workers in regional locations may be particularly vulnerable due to high unemployment rates and low levels of workplace law awareness.

Case Study

Seojun1, a Korean university student employed as a supermarket cleaner in a regional city, was asked by his employer to provide his tax file number so the employer could pay the wages of Seojun’s Korean co-workers into Seojun’s personal bank account. The wages would be paid at the correct minimum award rate with Seojun not required to work any hours. The employer told Seojun that he would make the wage records appear as if Seojun was working at one of the sites.

The employer then requested that Seojun pay his co-workers from his personal bank account at the agreed rate of $14.00 per hour and return the surplus wages to the employer in cash. The employer also asked Seojun to return any tax refunds Seojun received to the employer in cash at the end of the financial year.

Once the FWO had commenced an investigation into his employer, the employer further requested that any money paid to Seojun as a result of the FWO inquiry be paid back to the employer in cash once the FWO was satisfied that any underpayments had been made and the matter closed. Seojun said the employer did not want to directly pay the other workers their correct entitlements because he didn’t trust that they would return their tax to him at the end of the financial year.

Seojun refused to participate in this arrangement.


  1. All names used in case studies in this report have been changed and do not identify actual individuals.