Real pay cuts under the Abbott Government became fact this week when the Federal Court confirmed Sunday pay rates for casual hospitality staff would fall.
It’s a pay cut for those in some of the most lowly paid jobs and it is confirmation many employers don’t want to compensate people when work takes away time with their families.
Weekends are still special. That’s when families and friends have the time enjoy one another’s company. Australians know this and working people fought hard for compensation for those whose work took away that time.
But unless we resist, worse is to come.
Brett Adie, pictured with fellow paramedic Amanda Mills, says shift allowances put food on the table: "It gets you by every week."
Imagine a full time night shift shopping centre cleaner losing $10,373 pay in a year, or a full time ambulance paramedic with six years’ experience being left $14,895 worse off. Think about the baker working night shifts who will be $15,620 worse off.
Abbott is ushering in pay cuts for workers who rely on their night, overtime and weekend rates, sometimes called penalty rates, to survive.
As paramedic and United Voice member Brett Adie says: “Penalties put food on the table. It’s not for luxuries. It gets you by every week.”
The Abbott Government has a plan to strip away weekend and night pay from many more working people than those affected by the changes to the restaurant industry award. It is called the Fair Work Amendment Bill and it has just been sent to the Senate after passing through the House of Representatives. It is a couple of steps away from becoming law.
Shift and weekend allowances help prop up the household budgets of more than four million Australian families. They are central to tens of thousands of members of United Voice, people whose work forms the backbone of our community.
Kim Foster-Owens, a quality controller with Schweppes and United Voice member who relies on shift penalties for one quarter of her income, says simply it’s a matter of fairness. “Working shifts you have a shortened life expectancy: that’s proven. You have more stress and your health suffers.”
It’s only fair for those who work around the clock and across the weekend caring for us, protecting us and helping us enjoy our weekends – restaurant, health, transport and security staff and many others - to be compensated for missing that same opportunity with their friends and families.
“You miss out on so much, working at night and weekends. You have to have some sort of reward for keeping everything going at the airport while everyone else is at home,” says security officer and United Voice member Cameron Winduss.
“It’s just time with family, that’s the most important thing. If you have kids you are missing out on general weekend things. You miss out taking your kids to their footy or weekend sport and everything with shift work, and with a rotating roster you can’t commit to any regular weekend activity because you are working three out of four weekends. That deserves compensation for the job that you do.”
But this new Bill effectively reintroduces individual contracts that make it easier for that compensation to be stripped away.
It means weekend, night and overtime pay can be traded away for non-money benefits. The government says a worker might want flexible working hours and so they could surrender shift pay.
As the law stands now, workers have to be ‘better off overall’’ after any negotiation with their employer. That means shift pay, overtime and weekend pay is protected. That won’t be so any longer under the Abbott laws.
Kim Foster-Owens works part of the year on afternoon shifts and the remainder on night shift. “You miss out on a lot of normal activities like going to a movie on a Friday night. When your kids are doing things during the day you’re sleeping. It’s fair compensation for the fact that you’re working unnatural hours and it does affect your health.”
Kim Foster-Owens, pictured second from right with fellow United Voice members from Schweppes, knows the value of weekend pay: "It's a matter of fairness."
Australians are telling the government they will not accept its underhand pay cuts. More than 60,000 people have signed a union petition defending weekend rates and a Galaxy poll found 87% of adults support them. You can add your voice here.
There is more that is dangerous in this Bill, such as its attempts to limit workers' access to union information, advice and support at their workplace. Effectively, they will have to ask their employer for permission before they can speak to a union representative.
Without the resources of a union to turn to, individuals will be on their own. That puts them at an enormous disadvantage in negotiations and is a sneaky way of returning to the dark days of individual contracts.
At the same time as this Bill is travelling through parliament the Fair Work Commission is under instruction to review the role of weekend and shift pay in modern awards. The attack on wages and living standards is coming from several directions at once.
As Cameron Winduss says: “A lot of the people talking about this have never done shift work, or night shifts in their lives.
They don’t know the toll it takes on your body.”
Australians are saying they will defend night, weekend and overtime rates because they are fair compensation. If the reaction to the May Budget says anything, it’s that Australians will not compromise on fairness.