Workers left behind by Australia’s changing retail sector

Workers in Australia’s retail sector are being left behind as a wave of rapidly-changing technologies reshape the industry, according to research led by experts at The Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Sydney.

A survey of workers in the industry, which comprises 11 per cent of the Australian workforce, found that increased surveillance, a lack of training and the impact of online shopping were just some of the issues having a detrimental effect on retail workers.

Lead researcher Professor Ariadne Vromen, from the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, said the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly transformed retail work.

“Rapid changes including digitisation, the collection and use of big data, and automation are reshaping the retail industry and the skills required to work within it,” Professor Vromen said.

“We found there is a real tension between some of the senior stakeholders in the retail industry, such as employers, industry association leaders and consultants, and the retail workers on the ground.

“Workers are less concerned about automation and are more concerned about being replaced by other workers who will be paid less. They also see customer service and people skills, such as communicating well and managing conflict, as more important than technical skills for being successful in their jobs.

“Retail stakeholders also identified the growth of online shopping as a key transformation in the retail business model, which has prompted a rethink of the role of traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ stores.”

Professor Vromen said the study’s findings will help shape broader debate of Australia’s retail sector ahead of the Federal Government’s job summit in the first week of September.

The report contains insights from in-depth interviews with 30 senior stakeholders in the retail industry and retail-adjacent sectors and industries, including food and beverages, home and lifestyle, finance and technology, and logistics. The study also surveyed 1,160 retail workers.

About two-thirds of retail workers said they were not concerned about automation or online shopping having a negative impact on their job or working arrangements. However, one quarter of retail workers were concerned they would lose work if they did not keep up with the technical skills required.

By comparison, 35 per cent of retail workers were concerned about by being replaced by cheaper labour.

Two in five retail workers said their employer used technology to surveil them at work, and nearly half thought customer feedback was used in their performance evaluation, placing them under near constant scrutiny by management and customers.

Professor Vromen said many retail workers were vulnerable, low paid members of the Australian economy.

“A majority of retail employees are women and it is the third most feminised industry in Australia,” Professor Vromen said.

“Younger workers are over-represented in retail and more than half of the retail workforce are employed on part-time or casual contracts.

“The vast majority of retail and fast food workers cannot work from home. There are those in the frontline with customer-facing jobs, and others working in logistics and warehouses, organising delivery of food and consumable products. Only a very small proportion work in an office with predominantly desk work that can be undertaken at home.

“The disruption wrought by COVID-19 is not going away in 2022.”

The research is the second of a three-phase project published by the University of Sydney Business School’s Gender Equality in Working Life Research Initiative.

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