Sunday, April 05, 2015

This Easter give thanks for penalty rates, they keep us human

Have you heard about the member of parliament who couldn't find a bottle shop open on Good Friday? He blamed penalty rates. The real reason was Sydney's licensing laws.

Penalty rates get blamed for almost everything these days, which is odd because they've been around for 100 years. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry wants businesses that are closed over Easter to put signs in their windows saying it's because penalty rates are too high. If they are open it wants them to put signs in their windows saying they are employing fewer staff than they would like because penalty rates are too high. As it tells employers on its website: "There is a poster for either scenario relevant to your business."

MasterChef George Calombaris wants us to believe they are making his restaurants uneconomic. Yet in the past five years spending at restaurants and cafes has climbed 36 per cent. Other retail spending has climbed only 18 per cent. Employment in food service establishments has grown at twice the rate of other employment.

When presented with these sorts of facts celebrity chefs and employer representatives change the subject and say that things are different these days - most Australians no longer go to church and the distinction between weekends and the rest of the week is blurring.

They are right. Penalty rates were introduced for "evenings, weekends and public holidays to be the time when friends, families and social groupings, however constructed, are able to get together" in the words of the old Industrial Relations Commission. We no longer seriously socialise on weekends. The latest time-use survey finds we only spend only 1 hour per weekend socialising, down from 3 hours in the early 1990s. Our time spent shopping has doubled.

But there are other reasons to believe that penalty rates are more important than ever...

Penalty rates penalise employers for rostering people to work outside standard hours. In earlier years it didn't much matter if one member of the household worked outside standard hours. There was typically only one earner in each household, almost always the man. If that single earner was made to work at night or on weekends it wouldn't much harm his ability to get together with his wife. She would be at home whenever he was at home.

Not any more. These days if one partner works outside standard hours and the other works within them the penalty is real. Economists use the term "co-ordinated leisure" to describe what's at risk. The Melbourne band Weddings Parties Anything used lyrics:

Late at night when I come fumbling for my keys, the house is dark and all is quiet, get into bed, it is so hard for me to please, you're barely hours away from work, and you're so tired.

Australians who complain about penalty rates are often not themselves required to work unsociable hours. Assistant Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs told a business audience last year he was unable to dine at his favourite restaurant on New Year's Eve because penalty rates forced it to close. I phoned his office on Good Friday. He wasn't there.

Reluctant though we might be to admit it, there's a class element to complaints about penalty rates. The people who complain about them are those least likely to be forced to work at night or at weekends. The people who serve those people at night and on weekends are often lower paid (without the penalty rates) and less educated.

There's no doubt that we need retail workers, nurses and hospitality and emergency service workers to stay on duty after the rest of us have gone to bed. But to act as if we are in a 24-hour world where there's no longer any penalty attached to working non-standard hours is to invite the breakdown of those standard hours altogether. It's to invite employers to roster on all of us at all hours, making co-ordinated leisure and co-ordinated sleep almost impossible.

Easter is one of the few times most of us are guaranteed co-ordinated time off. Many parents stagger their annual leave with one taking four weeks off in one part of the school holidays and another taking four weeks off in another in order to try to cover the entire 12 weeks. Even for the non-religious and the non-Christian, Easter has become sacred.

This year Victoria joined NSW in making Easter Sunday a public holiday in addition to Friday, Saturday and Monday. It's important. It matters more than whether or not we are able to dine out.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald