By United Voice hospitality member, Mary O'Connor
This post originally appeared on the Guardian on 2 April 2015
I’m grieving the loss of the Australia I used to know, as various employer groups and politicians again attempt to make the case for a more “flexible” workplace relations system with more “competitive wages”. What happened to the land of the fair go – the Australia where there weren’t so much haves and have nots, but rather haves and haves-a-bit-less?
Change is inevitable, I know, but change for the worse is terrible. While China and other countries are pulling their people out of poverty, our current leaders seem intent on grinding ours into it.
Wistfully I’m remembering an Australia where people were paid an honest rate for an honest job. Where penalty rates for working weekends, nights or holidays were seen as the fair and decent thing and where no one would have had the temerity to call penalty rates “obscene” and to expose themselves as the greedy buggers they are.
I know a bit about working weekends and relying on penalty rates to support my family. I work in catering in an aged care facility. It’s unglamorous but essential work. And while our prime minister might suggest that “if you don’t want to work on a weekend, fair enough don’t work on a weekend,” I think the elderly people we care for deserve good meals every day of the week and that means I work weekends.
Working every weekend means I miss out on a lot. My normal weekend shift is from 7am to 7.30pm. After that, it’s all I can do to get home and climb into bed. Socialising is out of the question.
As a single parent, it also means my kids miss out on time with me. I sacrifice a normal routine and lifestyle because the compensation for that is that I earn penalty rates for these shifts and that allows me to pay the bills.
Penalty rates take poverty level wages up to a subsistence level.
I’ve heard the arguments that it’s a 24/7 society now and working weekends and holidays is all part and parcel of a modern economy. But I wonder how many of the people making those arguments have had to work on Christmas Day in order to buy presents for their children?
I have and that’s why I felt compelled, for the first time in my life, to join a rally last month against the attempts to whittle down our wages and conditions. I have never protested before but it was quite an amazing feeling to stand there with 50,000 people.
Despite some sections of the media painting a picture of a ragged group of serial militant ratbag protesters, we were a diverse cross-section of working people: people standing together against the chill wind of poverty and standing up for ourselves.
While I don’t earn a lot, I support my family with what I earn and I contribute a far higher percentage of my earnings in tax than many of the biggest companies operating in Australia.
Frankly I don’t understand why the government isn’t arguing for a wage increase for me. Given I don’t have an accountant squirrelling my money away into a Cayman Islands bank account, the more I earn, the more revenue they get.
I am not covetous; I don’t begrudge anyone anything. The rich can Scrooge McDuck-like swim in their pools full of money if they want; I don’t care (although I do think all that hoarding is unhealthy). But please don’t covet the pittance we workers get for doing the jobs you don’t want to do at the times when you’re relaxing and enjoying your weekends and holidays.