Penalty rates based on family values - Hobart Mercury

There are worrying signs from the Abbott Government that it will use the Productivity Commission's industrial relations inquiry to undermine penalty rates for casual workers. In this piece for the Hobart Mercury, Brendan O'Connor and I explain why protecting penalty rates protects more than just the wages of low-paid workers.

Penalty rates based on family values, Hobart Mercury, 23 February

When was the last time you planned your child’s birthday party for a Monday morning? Went to a christening on Tuesday? Invited friends to your house for a BBQ lunch on a Wednesday?

If the answer is ‘hardly ever’, then you’re a beneficiary of one of the greatest social inventions of humankind: the weekend.

In economic jargon, weekends help solve a coordination problem. If you’re planning to invite fifty guests to your wedding, it helps if there’s a common time that they’re unlikely to be working. 

Weekends reflect the fact that we work to live, not the other way around. Catching up with friends, playing sport, attending religious services and supporting community groups are fundamental to the notion of a good life.

Perhaps the most important way we protect weekends is with penalty rates. Penalty rates reflect the fact that we aren’t just consumers, we’re also producers. They also recognise that many of those who work on weekends are in sectors such as retail and hospitality, where workers tend to have low rates of base pay, and limited bargaining power.

For example, the weekly minimum wage set by the Restaurant Industry Award is $624, which is less than half of average median wage – so these people certainly aren’t using their penalty rates to buy a yacht. These Australians rely on their modest penalty rates to pay their bills. Anyone with a bit of decency instinctively understands that their pleasant brunch requires the baristas and waitstaff to spend time away from family and friends. Few decent people begrudge a café that puts a surcharge on the menu for Sundays and public holidays.

And yet there are some who seem to lack that decent instinct.

In launching its review of Australia’s workplace relations system, the Abbott Government has even gone so far as to call for a rethink on whether Saturday and Sunday should be treated as standard days of the working week.

Treating the weekend like any other workday would mean shop assistants, waiters, petrol station workers, bakers and hundreds of other types of workers would lose their penalty rates. Since 1947, Australia’s workplace laws have said that if you’re at work while everyone else is at play, then you should earn extra for your efforts. Often, those who work on the weekend or late into the night do so because those are the shifts their employer offers.

For some people penalty rates provide some compensation for the unsocial nature of weekend and night work. For others, they mean not just having to scrape by from week-to-week.

When we protect penalty rates, we protect more than those extra dollars for the people who serve us our coffees and ring up our shopping at the supermarket. We also protect the idea of the weekend itself – as a time for family, relaxation and shared experiences. Australians clearly concur: in one survey 79 per cent of people agreed that those who work on weekends and at night should receive a higher rate of pay. The Abbott Government has tried to paint this as a partisan issue, but in that survey even 73 per cent of Liberal voters supported penalty rates.

Nurses and firefighters deserve penalty rates because people still get sick and houses still catch fire on weekends. Others earn it too because their work enhances our leisure and recreation on weekends. Weekend workers have families and social commitments just like you and I, which they must sacrifice to serve our community and for that we say there should be a fair reward.    

So weekends matter because community matters. Family matters. Togetherness matters. And when the Abbott Government says it wants to take away penalty rates, it is attacking much more than the wages of some of the lowest-paid Australians. It is also attacking those things that really make our lives worthwhile.

Labor will stand against abolishing penalty rates because they are a fair reward for working unsocial hours. But we’ll also do so because going into bat for penalty rates means protecting the very idea that some parts of the week are for work, and others are for doing things we enjoy with people we care about.

They might talk about family values, but the Abbott Government seems to want to make it harder for people to spend time with their families. There’s little decency at play when people who’d never dream of working on Christmas Day are trying to cut the pay bonus of those who have to.

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