Love my penalty rates

The assault on penalty rates is an assault on our values

Penalty ratesIf you are reading this at the time of publication clearly you are not serving someone else’s breakfast or latte on a Sunday morning.

Do you expect someone to serve you breakfast on a Sunday at 10am at your favourite café?

Do you expect someone to pour you a drink on Sunday at 2am at your favourite bar or club?

I can already hear the chorus of ‘if you don’t like it, you don’t have to work those hours; get another job.’ Only if life was that easy …

Then be prepared to pay a price that’s sufficient to compensate those who are serving you, for working at a time of the week and day you usually party or relax. Be prepared to pay a price that’s sufficient to pay those who make that sacrifice a living wage.

Take it from me, as someone who had worked in the hospitality industry for many years, they would much rather spend that precious time with their children, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, or mates, than mill freshly cracked pepper on your Eggs Benedict, or mix you another cocktail, which often costs as much as what they would get paid an hour without the weekend penalty rates.

But they are doing it because they need to earn a living.

Workers on some of the lowest wages shouldn’t be the ones who carry the costs of a 24/7 economy demanded, allegedly, by consumers.

Penalty rates were designed to acknowledge those who work at times when others enjoy their leisure time: nights, weekends and holidays. There is a lot of talk in reply about a 24 hours 7 days economy. That’s all good and fine, but you can’t expect such a fundamental change to commerce at no cost to business, or consumers.

Workers on some of the lowest wages shouldn’t be the ones who carry the costs of a 24/7 economy demanded, allegedly, by consumers. If consumers want a 24/7 economy, they should be prepared to pay for it. The weekends, especially Sundays, still hold a special cultural significance, especially in a world where work hours increasingly extend into our personal lives.

I can already hear the chorus of ‘if you don’t like it, you don’t have to work those hours; get another job.’ Only if life was that easy, penalty rates and other safeguards would never have been necessary, and everyone would make a living wage. But life’s not that easy for everyone. There are students, single parents and countless others who have no choice, but to work hours that are not ordinary, and they should be recognised for that in a caring and just society.

Do you honestly believe employers won’t have to exert pressure on their employees to sacrifice weekends, nights or holidays for the same, or not substantially different, pay as a weekday, rather than spend those times with family and friends? In the words of that true blue Aussie icon from The Castle, Dale Kerrigan: tell ’em they’re dreamin’.

Another of the main arguments is that by doing away with penalty rates small businesses will be able to hire more people. Even assuming that assertion holds true, which is debatable, having more people employed below living wages is no victory for a just and liberal society.

Even the Productivity Commission strongly supports the concept of weekend and evening penalty rates to compensate workers for time lost with family and friends, but in the draft report recommends cuts to Sunday penalty rates.

Penalty rates have a legitimate role in compensating employees for working long hours or at unsociable times. They should be maintained. However, Sunday penalty rates for cafes, hospitality, entertainment, restaurants and retailing should be aligned with Saturday rates.

There are compelling grounds for premium rates of pay for overtime, night and shift work:
• Long hours of work involve risks not only to an employee’s health and safety but also for the community …
• There are proven adverse health effects from night shift and rotating shift work.
• By definition, public holidays are intended to encourage shared community activities. As such, there are strong grounds for deterrence against their use for working, but with some flexibility to provide some services on these days …

Regulated minimum penalty rates recognise the impacts of such work and that absent regulation, the weaker bargaining power of employees may not lead to adequate compensation. The Productivity Commission has not recommended any changes in these rates. This is also in line with the views of participants in this inquiry, who did not raise any significant concerns about penalty rates for overtime, night or shift work.
Workplace Relations Framework Draft Report, Productivity Commission (August 2015)

I largely agree with the position taken by the Commission, except their recommendation of Sunday penalty rate changes for cafés, hospitality, entertainment, restaurants and retail.

Admittedly, this is only a draft report and I hope the Commission will recognise the significance of our penalty rates to the living standards of hundreds of thousands of workers in Australia, and come to the view that some of the lowest paid workers in the nation shouldn’t be expected to carry the costs of the expansion of business hours that will only benefit consumers and business owners – not workers.

And it is more than rich for any politician to call for an end to the penalty rates for some of the lowest paid workers in the country, especially in light of recent revelations about their use of entitlements, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ funds being spent on questionable luxury travel.

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