If Bill Shorten’s response to the Fair Work Commission’s decision to reduce penalty rates was an assignment at the Soviet School of Propaganda, it’s safe to assume he would have taken top marks. Disguising a Labor Party member as an ordinary citizen in order deceive the public into advancing the party line, though reprehensible as a manipulative tool, was a move of slick genius by Labor’s Ministry of Truth. Had Bolshevik Bill got away with it, I’m sure it would have earned him at least a nod, and maybe even a wink, from the likes of Stalin, who might well have wished he had thought of it first.
The revelation that Trent Hunter, a shoppies union delegate and ALP campaign volunteer, equipped with sob story and all, would be unaffected by the decision after declaring he stood to lose $109 a week would have normally left the Inner Party faithful a little red-faced. However, by that stage Shorten and his union colleagues had already deflected attention by denouncing the independent decision as Malcolm Turnbull’s—this despite the Fair Work Commission being Labor’s brainchild. It must have also slipped Shorten’s mind that the head of the Commission is Justice Iain Ross, a former ACTU official appointed to the role by Bill Shorten when he was the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in the Rudd/Gillard governments.
Nevertheless, the cyclone of rage moved on.
Speaking as a casual retail worker who works every second Sunday, it is tremendously clear — at least to me — that the Commission handed down the right decision last Thursday. First of all, penalty rates haven’t been ‘abolished’. Nor have they been ‘slashed’. Depending on one’s employment type, penalty rates have been ‘reduced’ from 200% to 175-150% to fairly compensate those who work undesirable hours in industries required to trade on Sundays. This has been done in accordance with meeting the needs of employers to ensure the viability of their business. Public holiday penalty rates have also been reduced, moderately, too, it must be said, to best obviate against businesses trading at a loss on days when most people rightly put their feet up and take it easy.
There is no doubt that some of the larger national retailers, the types already open on Sundays and capable of paying exorbitant rates, will profit from the decision. It is small businesses, however, that will see a much needed boost to their bottom lines. Come July 1 this year, many will be able to reopen, offer staff more hours, and do away with surcharges that see consumers spending their money elsewhere.
There are other hidden intangibles that will benefit both employees and employers. Currently, understaffing on Sunday’s spreads work duties thinly between employees, forcing them to carry the same load with less help. This increases the likelihood of stress, the breakdown of safe practices, and the possibility of injury — otherwise known as things unions used to care about preventing. No person wants to be out of work and nursing themselves back to health. Being paid to stay at home isn’t as alluring as it seems. Extended periods of injury leave have been proven to compound physical injury by impairing an individual’s mental health, increasing the likelihood of suffering symptoms of anxiety and depression.
At the same time, no employer wants to pay injury compensation to a worker or see relations between staff deteriorate as workplace exertions become unmanageable. Reduced penalty rates means more staff, and more staff means tasks can be delegated efficiently amongst employees, which benefits all involved. After all, these are businesses people want to go to because staff are engaging, not flustered, and the service is prompt and affordable.
The deceitful outpouring of student grief following the Commission’s decision is also worth addressing. “We need the Sunday rates to survive,” was one of my favourite cries. According to the new-found breadliners, double pay was a human right for working such inconvenient hours and to suggest otherwise a moral assault.
What tripe! You’d think they were chipping away at boulders for pennies. No casual worker is anguished by working Sundays—quite the opposite, actually. Most beg for them. Why? Because they know they’ve been getting away with, well, a bit of steal really. This is dependent on perspective, of course. The story being circulated now is that students will have to work more hours to make ends meet. The truth is the few lucky enough to work Sundays often willingly work less hours during the week because the penalty rates more than make up for this. It’s the Saturday and night shift part-timers who actually do it tough.
In an economy moving further from the five-day week, Sundays are increasingly losing their lustre: they certainly aren’t twice as precious as the current award would suggest. Few would advocate removing penalty rates entirely — that is not the argument I’m making — but with church attendancefalling and 24/7 online shopping eating into retail profits, what was once a day of rest is fast becoming just like any other day.
This is why working on a Sunday is not as inconvenient as has been intimated. In fact, for many it’s to be expected. If you decide to further your education after secondary school—and university is a choice, remember—and if you work part-time or casually to make ends meet, it goes without saying that shifts outside the regular 9-5 are what awaits you. A reduction in penalty rates provides ample opportunity to reduce the current 12.3% youth unemployment rate by creating more employment opportunities for those currently seeking work.
Will a few people be worse off? Of course they will. To suggest otherwise would be dismissing the most inveterate rule of politics: as soon as you try to help everybody, you help nobody. Unfortunately somebody must miss out. But, unless time proves otherwise, more will benefit from this decision. If not, reasoned creatures that we humans are, we can always reconsider our options in the near future. After all, it’s a trifle childish to admonish something as ineffective when it hasn’t come into effect yet.
But because prattling about oneself is ever so fashionable—here’s looking at you, Trent—allow me to reiterate the platform from which I speak:
I don’t volunteer for any party. I’m a retail worker. I’m a casual. I work Sundays.
I also support the Fair Work Commission’s decision.