Penalty rates a fair reward for sacrifice

By JESS WALSH (pictured below addressing a rally of cleaners)

After 22 years of continuous economic growth and having dodged the bullet of the global financial crisis Australia needs next to do what exactly? Abolish penalty rates, according to Tony Abbott’s business supporters.

He has not been quite as blunt as that. Instead, the Prime Minister has used weasel words about supporting applications by business to abolish penalties, but the effect is the same. The government is lending its weight to pressure to undermine the pay and conditions of the poorest paid, most disadvantaged workers in the country.

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The penalty rates debate, driven as it is by the Restaurant and Catering industry association, is divorced from reality. At the very time last November that the association was appealing against a court’s decision to maintain penalty rates, the Bureau of Statistics was noting a 10.6 per cent annual increase in restaurant, café and catering turnover.

Penalty rates apply much more broadly than in hospitality, and they are crucial to compensating workers for working unsociable hours that are disruptive to families and ruinous to social lives. In fact, Australian workers throughout the economy rely on penalty payments to lift below average wages into the realm of liveability.

More than 75 per cent of United Voice union members work in industries where penalty pay is often applied. They include ambulance paramedics, office and shopping centre cleaners, bakery workers and security guards. They are the backbone of our community: their jobs are essential and it is essential that they are done at unsociable hours.

One of our members, a 63 year-old widow who cleans a major suburban shopping centre, told us last week that she works the nightshift, starting at midnight, because that is the only way her single income becomes a living wage.  Night shift takes her from $664.60 to $863.98 weekly.

A survey of our shopping centre cleaner members who work night shift found that most are middle-aged men working full time, and almost half of them are supporting children. Yet despite the night penalties two thirds of them had trouble paying bills and could not afford to visit a dentist, while a quarter of them could not afford to buy a car.

Ambulance paramedics commonly work a mix of 14-hour and 10-hour shifts on a roster four days on and four days off taking in nights and weekends. For this they receive a fixed penalty of 26.7 per cent. Without that penalty, no-one could afford to support a family, Bendigo paramedic Brett Adie told us recently.

The penalty pay is partly compensation for what he gives up by way of his social life, missed family occasions and the chance to coach his children’s sport teams.  But it is also what pays his mortgage and puts food on the table. “It’s a below average wage without the penalties,” Brett said. “It’s not for luxuries, it gets you by every week.”

That is precisely the point overlooked in the public debate being pushed by business’s stalking horse, Restaurant and Catering Australia. Penalty rates are not the preserve of university students or backpackers temporarily earning a few extra dollars to support them through next semester or their next adventure.

Working people and their families rely on penalty rates for a decent income. Penalty rates are a traditional way for working people to make up the difference between falling behind their debts on the one hand or creating a little financial security for themselves on the other.

Restaurateurs and the retailers who support their push to abolish penalty pay should be careful what they wish for, because abolishing penalty rates would take an enormous amount of demand out of our economy. The economic damage would be boundless, but there is a fundamental issue of fairness here as well.

Working at night, or at weekends or in a job that impedes your family or social life is a sacrifice deserving of compensation. Australians have long understood that and fought for it. Let us continue to respect those who make that sacrifice and reward them for it.

JESS WALSH is secretary of United Voice Victoria.

This article first appeared on The Age online.


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