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Before you call for penalty rates to be cut, try working a few Sundays

Not for the first time this year, Workplace Minister Eric Abetz has been forced to calm the rumblings after another government minister weighed in on penalty rates, and why they should be cut. Changes…

Like it or not, working on a Sunday is not the same as working on a Tuesday. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Not for the first time this year, Workplace Minister Eric Abetz has been forced to calm the rumblings after another government minister weighed in on penalty rates, and why they should be cut.

Changes are unlikely to occur until after a forthcoming Productivity Commission review of workplace relations, and may not come until after the next election, but it’s clear the campaign to justify reducing penalty rates is already underway.

John Hart, CEO of Restaurant and Catering Australia recently called the battle against penalty rates his industry’s “historic fight”. But what of the workers who earn these rates, who are among the lowest paid employees in Australia?

I have spent the past nine years following approximately 1000 young Australians as they transition from secondary school into work. Over half have at some point during their late-teens and early twenties earned penalty rates, with hospitality the most common industry. I’ve regularly asked these participants in interviews about the positive and negative aspects of their paid work and its impact on their relationships and study.

As well as the availability of part-time work in industries like hospitality, which they can fit around their other commitments such as education, they say they appreciate penalty rates. Working a Sunday or a public holiday helps them work a little less and still pay the bills, and helps the students keep up with their studies.

All working days are not equal

The negatives they raise show why penalty rates appear to still be justified. While some point to their lack of job security or lack of a career path, the most common issue raised is that the hours they work make it hard to balance their paid employment with finding time to spend with the people they care about, even if the hours they work are part time.

A key plank of the case against penalty rates is that in our modern 24/7 world, additional remuneration of weekend and evening work makes little sense. While working weekends and evenings is indeed becoming more common, particularly for young people, our society has not changed so that all days and times at work are equal. A Sunday, for example, is not the same as a Tuesday.

The major events in family life, such as birthday parties, and the events that people want to attend with friends, like going to the football, continue to be overwhelmingly scheduled on Friday nights or Saturday and Sunday. As one of the young people in the study put it:

“You’re working when your friends, family or partner are at home, and you can’t just go away on weekends or public holidays.”

Another working as a chef put it like this:

“No social life, bad sleeping patterns and no friends.”.

Even as they have become more common, weekend and public holiday hours of work continue to be unsocial. If you work at these times you miss out on things that others don’t. Very few, all else being equal, prefer to be working Sundays and public holidays.

Minister Briggs argues “we cannot accept that on New Year’s Eve you can’t attend your favourite restaurant because it is impossible for that restaurant to pay its staff to open up”. It is difficult to see why we must instead accept that those who allow us to attend our favourite restaurant should get less recompense for spending their NYE at work.

Levelling the playing field

Many factors need to be considered in setting rates of pay. The hospitality industry is tough. Unsocial hours are common for small business employers in hospitality as well as employees, but they are still not the standard for workers in general.

One reason, unrelated to penalty rates, that not all cafés open on the weekend is that most of us still do not work on weekends and public holidays. There is little point opening a café in an industrial area on a Sunday, for example.

It is possible at some point in the future Sundays and public holidays will be the same as any other day and some other system of recognising unsocial hours of work will be needed, but we are not there yet. One thing that can help both employers and employees is a level playing field. It can be hard to compete with those who flaunt the rules on pay.

Decisions about industrial relations must always account for their impact on life outside of work. Penalty rates recognise this, and help some of the lowest paid Australians, including students who are likely to face increasing financial pressures in coming years.