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Why Penalty Rates Should Be Everyone's Cup Of Tea

We are a market economy. We are not a market society.

23/02/2017 7:16 AM AEDT | Updated 23/02/2017 12:06 PM AEDT
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"Reducing the take home pay of families that consist of shift workers is a value I want nothing to do with."

Like most kids, I used to marvel at Santa Claus' ability to travel around the world at lightning speed, let alone keep a comprehensive naughty and nice database, all before we had computers.

But from my point of view, the most amazing thing was that he also knew exactly which of us were the children of shift workers. In my case, Santa would make a special trip to Sydney to deliver presents a day early for those of us whose Dads were working on Christmas Day. That was really something.

When I asked my parents why Dad worked every Christmas Day (and the other public holidays and most Sundays), I was given two very good reasons: Firstly, all the people who drove their cars on those days relied on my Dad and people like him who worked at the NRMA in case they broke down. And secondly, the extra pay that Dad got for working and missing out on that family time was important for keeping our household afloat.

Until the Cabinet, Parliament and company boards all routinely meet on Sundays, we do not have a seven-day-a-week economy.

I was used to Dad's work and our family coped well, but there was no doubt that we, and especially Dad, missed out on things that were second nature to other families. On the other hand, penalty rates and shift loadings were a big part of how we got by.

For me, the current debate about penalty rates comes down to one simple question: Why should today's shift workers receive less for their efforts than my Dad and all the other shift workers who came before them? Has our society and economy changed so much that now we can't afford to compensate people for giving up time with their families?

Malcolm Turnbull argues that we are now a seven-day-a-week economy as a reason for getting rid of penalty rates. I have two answers to that. Firstly, until the Cabinet, Parliament and company boards all routinely meet on Sundays, we do not have a seven-day-a-week economy. Until then, some people have to work on Sundays while the rest of us get to enjoy them. Secondly, the fact that more and more Australians are required to work weekends and irregular hours so we can all have the convenience of access to hospitality, retail and services, makes it more important to protect penalty rates, not less.

With inequality on the rise, the case to abolish or reduce penalty rates and thus reduce the take home pay of many low income earners is particularly weak. Watering down penalty rates would also increase the number of people who might be attracted to the siren song of economic populism because they don't think the economy is working for them.

The fact that more and more Australians are required to work weekends and irregular hours so we can all have the convenience of access to hospitality, retail and services, makes it more important to protect penalty rates, not less.

Bill Shorten was right to announce in the Australia Day week that Labor will protect penalty rates if they come under attack. While the independence and primacy of the industrial tribunal has always been and will continue to be important to Labor there are also other important principles at stake. Labor was formed to use the power of Parliament to improve the lot of hard-working, ordinary people. How could we stand by and see this important protection watered down?

We are a market economy. We are not a market society. Time with family on weekends and sacred days is something we all cherish. A lot of politicians talk a lot about family values. Reducing the take home pay of families that consist of shift workers is a value I want nothing to do with.

It is the job of each generation of politicians to move our society forward and leave the next generation better off. Scrapping penalty rates would see the next generation of shift workers markedly worse off than the generation that consisted of my Dad, all his fellow shift workers and all the generations before his.

A fair society will ensure that people who miss out on this receive just compensation. And long may that fairness continue.


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