Source: Illawarra Mercury
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Penalty Rates – Why We Need Them

The Abbott Government’s Productivity Commission into the Fair Work Act and Australia’s industrial relations structures has opened the door for industry groups to attack penalty rates. Business groups are claiming penalty rates are causing businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, to struggle financially and therefore penalty rates should be standardised for both Saturday and Sunday rates. As employer submissions into the review of the minimum wage and the Fair Work Act began to arrive, the drums of war has begun to sound as the debate over penalty rates fires up. The attack by industry groups is a continued and concerted effort by business to gain an unfair advantage over the common worker and dismantle structures allowing workers to achieve a balance generations have fought to preserve.

On the 21st of April 1856 stonemasons left building sites all over Melbourne and marched to Parliament in defence of the eight-hour work day. This was the first organised protest that saw workers achieve an eight-hour day in Australia without a loss of pay. For workers all over Australia this feat formed the base of the modern working society we live in today. Penalty rates are a fundamental aspect of Australia’s industrial relations system that continues to defend the right to work an eight-hour day and a five-day week. Those who work on weekends, public holidays and after regular business hours are doing a service to our modern society and our economy and should be rightly compensated for their labour.

The weekend is a sacred structure that allows our lives to be more than just work.

Australians work to live, not live to work. This should be a statement that is upheld vehemently as the debate over penalty rates unfolds in the coming months. The positive benefits to our way of life and to our existence is of course important, but most people have a job or career so they can put food on the table, support their family and have a roof over their head. Those who work in fields with penalty rates are working at a time that is valued as time for rest or for recreation. Let’s think of the poor university student who works 16 hours on Saturday and Sunday so they can afford to study and better their lives through education. They do not choose this path but give up their eight hours of rest and recreation so they can put food on the table and gain an education. As penalty rates benefit those who cannot afford to work in the week, changes to penalty rates are likely to detrimentally affect women who more often work on the weekend to accommodate for children and parenthood.

The call for standardising penalties rates on Saturday and Sunday reflects the business communities misunderstanding of our social order. Having a higher penalty rate on Sunday offers the flexibility for both workers and employers to gain benefits from working on a day that is sacredly set aside for rest. If the rates are standardised, the construct of the weekend begins to collapse. What was once a sacred day of rest becomes another day where bosses can take advantage of workers.

This attack by the Abbott Government is not surprising. The current Government are becoming increasingly known for their disregard of social safety nets, workers’ rights and a formidable society where the idea of a ‘fair go’ is valued. Abbott has attacked pensioners, single mothers, students, those on government welfare and the sick. His approach in all these scenarios highlights his disregard for the vulnerable and lack of empathy for the common man. So an attack on workers was inevitable by this seemingly cruel government.

It is clear that the argument made by business groups that a reduction of penalty rates will increase an employer’s ability to hire more workers is flawed and at best a cop out. Businesses in hospitality are unlikely to hire more workers when they can hold on to the cash they would save with the abolishment of penalty rates. Businesses cannot claim that these changes are for the benefit of workers, it is clearly no benefit to workers, and at best would create widespread underpaid and undervalued workforces who are pushed into a life of multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

Why shouldn’t workers who labour in industries that sit outside our societies common structure not be compensated properly for their work? Far too often workers are thrown under the bus and their wellbeing is rejected in favour of a corporation or entity. The reality is that our economy keeps moving 7-days a week and while there is an absolute need for people to work on weekends the sacrifice to work on a weekend should be properly compensated for.

This ‘debate’ over penalty rates is nothing more than an attack on workers and those who must work irregular shifts, often people of lower wealth and those who need to work weekends or after hours shifts just to survive. Spare a thought for the lives of the people depending on penalty rates to survive.

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