'Angry' Woolworths customers confront staff over Australia Day move

Peter Dutton has been accused of 'starting another culture war' by calling on customers to boycott the supermarket.

A Woolworths worker has revealed he's already been confronted by disgruntled shoppers seeking Australia Day paraphernalia — and believes the behaviour will only get worse in the lead-up to January 26.

The supermarket giant announced earlier this week that its stores — as well as Big W outlets — will not be selling Australia Day merchandise, citing a decline in demand as the reason. Aldi has since announced it will follow Woolworths' decision.

“Not selling it gets a lot of people asking questions and they're getting frustrated,” the employee told Yahoo News Australia on Friday, admitting he fears the move will “make [shoppers] very angry” and lead to an increase in abuse that has soared in recent years amid the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis. “Some days are good, some are not, most days are not — most days you don’t know what’s going to happen when you show up.”

An employee supervises self-service checkout kiosks at a Woolworths Group Ltd. grocery store in Sydney.
A Woolworths employee told Yahoo he has already had 'angry' customers confront him over the decision to remove Australia Day items. Source: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Woolies staffer claimed he had been instructed to send customers to Big W where “they have a small range" of Australia Day products — mainly flags. In some rural areas, stores can be located an hour apart, so customers don't appear to be taking the advice well, he told Yahoo.

“People are getting angry about it because it’s a lot more trouble [to go to],” he said. “Regional areas are affected the most.” Woolworths told Yahoo News Australia "there is no excuse for abuse or aggression towards our team". We take any incident of this nature seriously.“Australian flags are sold within BIG W all year round, we don’t have any additional themed merchandise available to purchase in-store in our supermarkets or BIG W ahead of Australia Day.”

Fury over Peter Dutton's Woolworths boycott call

While the supermarket's decision to not stock Australia Day items has reignited concerns over the increasing level of abuse staffers are copping in stores, cabinet minister Murray Watt believes staff will likely be fearing their jobs could be at risk if a widespread boycott of the supermarket, as instructed by Opposition leader Peter Dutton, was to materialise.

“This is the consequences of Peter Dutton and his constant desire to divide and be negative, is that he is prepared to put the jobs of 200,000 workers at risk at Woolies, just to score a cheap political point,” he told ABC Breakfast on Friday.

“His priority is starting another culture war about the kind of thongs and flags that supermarkets sell. I think it shows that he is really out of touch with what Australians really care about when it comes to supermarkets, and that’s the prices they are paying at the checkout.”

'Dutton's comments will put workers at risk'

A spokesperson for the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union told Yahoo News Australia it is concerned “Dutton’s insensitive and divisive comments will put workers at risk”.

“The populist commentary of Dutton is unsurprising and must be rejected in no uncertain terms. It is remarkable that during a cost-of-living crisis, when retail workers are facing daily harassment, intimidation, assaults and threats, Dutton would engage in such rhetoric.

“Dutton had nothing to say when workers were striking over poverty wages, unsafe workplaces and insecure jobs and when the community was boycotting Woolworths at Christmas over price gouging. His priorities are clearly division and media stunts.”

The RFFU said it has “long campaigned for there to be no sale of nationalistic memorabilia celebrating 'Invasion Day' as it undermines the wellbeing and safety of First Nations workers in retail”.

People wave flags and festive merchandise to celebrate Australia Day.
Australia Day has become a controversial issue as more Australians understand the pain it brings to members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Source: Chris Hopkins/Getty Images

Coles vows to keep selling Australia Day merchandise

January 26 has become the subject of increasing condemnation as more Australians understand the pain it brings to members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, who are reminded of the generations of colonial oppression that began when the English First Fleet raised their flag at Sydney Cove in 1788.

In recent years, Invasion or Survival Day rallies have been strongly attended across all capital cities, though many Australians continue to enjoy festivities away from the protests.

Woolworths’ move came after department store Kmart announced last year it would no longer sell Australia Day products in an effort to be “inclusive and respectful”. However, a spokesperson from rival supermarket Coles says the company will continue lining its shelves with Australia Day merchandise.

With AAP

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