Claim Aussie vehicle parts giant Bapcor is underpaying NZ staff under Covid

Australian-owned automotive parts and repairs giant Bapcor is claimed to be underpaying New Zealand staff during the Covid-19 lockdown, but the company says it is “very comfortable” about its position.

The owner of BNT, The Shock Shop, and Battery Town, which posted a record profit for the year to June, has received $646,072 in the latest wage subsidy for 540 staff. Bapcor Services NZ Ltd received $3.891 million for 556 staff in the original wage subsidy.

A source, who did not want to be named, said New Zealand staff were told that they would not receive their full pay despite the company qualifying for the wage subsidy.

Bapcor had unilaterally reduced workers’ pay to under 80 per cent in many instances, without discussion or providing information to staff, and without agreement, the source said.

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Bapcor made temporary “pandemic leave” available for staff to use as a top-up for wages for up to two weeks, but did not initially make it clear that staff would not get their full wage unless they applied for the paid pandemic leave.

”From the outset the messaging was not ‘you have to apply in order to get any top-up’. The message was, ‘it’s leave available for you if you need it’.”

The owner of BNT, The Shock Shop, and Battery Town posted a record profit for the year to June.
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The owner of BNT, The Shock Shop, and Battery Town posted a record profit for the year to June.

One worker was significantly underpaid, receiving 60 per cent of his normal pay through the wage subsidy and the company’s ‘pandemic leave’ top-up.

The company had not asked staff if they agreed to any changes in their pay or conditions, and there was no pandemic clause in the employment contract that would allow a variation in pay, the source said.

The company told staff on September 14 that it no longer qualified for the wage subsidy because its revenue was too high, but staff who had applied for pandemic leave would have their pay topped up.

Bapcor New Zealand executive managing director Martin Storey​ told staff that Bapcor was adding $200 on top of the $600 a week wage subsidy payment, for full-time workers, and adding $100 for part-time staff.

That would take the pay close to normal earnings for many workers, he said in an email to staff, “not just the 80 per cent outlined in the guidelines”.

Staff had the option of applying for pandemic leave, and annual leave, to bring their pay closer to its normal level.

In at least one case, the worker had applied for pandemic leave, and it had not been actioned, the source said.

Storey​ told Stuff the company had provided substantial support to all staff, and had kept in constant contact.

“A very high percentage of our team members did access Bapcor-funded support across that time, which of course included entitlement to pandemic leave.

“We have received many dozens of messages of appreciation from our team.”

Staff could ask questions during company teleconferences, and also by email, phone call or text.

“We’ve made a big effort with our team, and we’ve had the full support of Bapcor in Australia with our activities.”

He would not comment on whether the company had asked staff to agree to pay reductions.

“I think there’s been quite a bit of observation from pundits (employment lawyers) in the media … regarding that and that, of course will, I suppose be tested in the fullness of time.

“We’re very proud to have not received a large scale number of people raising that, in fact we’ve only got one query, and we feel that we’ve answered that query well.

“The mechanics of what some of the pundits are talking about sounds great in the textbook. How you actually get to your team and talk about that, we did so very well over the three days of that week [of lockdown] and into the following week.

“I’m very comfortable in the test that may come that we will be able to show to whoever is interested, that from the point of view of testing us further, that actually our support is nothing like what is being represented ... very, very comfortable.”

The Ministry of Social Development said that applicants for the Wage Subsidy August 2021 had to use their best endeavours to pay at least 80 per cent of employees’ ordinary wages or salary.

The ministry also noted that employers needed an employee’s written agreement to make any changes to their obligations under any employment agreement, including rates of pay and hours of work.

Employment lawyer Jo Douglas​, a partner at Douglas Erickson, said it was clearer this time than during the first lockdown last year that the usual employment obligations applied.

“For the employers we’re advising, if they need to do this, they’re consulting with their staff, and then they’re reaching an agreement and, of course, going through the usual precautions which include that the employee has an opportunity to seek independent advice on the variations,” said Davidson.

“Usually it’s important to say also if it’s a temporary measure, what’s the length of time that that applies for, how’s it going to be reviewed, so the employees have some certainty about when they’re going to revert back to their usual terms of employment.”

Some employers had amended the terms and conditions of employment to prepare in advance, for example with a business interruption clause, she said.