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Myths about penalty rates and those who rely on them

It’s not just young single people that work weekends. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Myths about penalty rates and those who rely on them

In the current review of Modern Awards before the Fair Work Commission, employers are challenging the level of penalty rates. At the same time, the Productivity Commission says excessive penalty rates for Sundays reduce hours worked, mean unemployment is higher than it needs to be, and reduce options for businesses and consumers. It wants Sunday penalty rates in some sectors to be set at the Saturday rate.

A penalty rate for Sunday work was first implemented in Australia for working “unsocial” hours in 1919. The 1947 “Weekend Penalty Rates Case” expanded penalty rates to Saturdays, while Sundays were set at a rate of double time. Later decisions specified that workers would need to be compensated for the loss of opportunity for family life and social time resulting from weekend work.

More than 60 years on, employers argue the world has changed. It has, but many of the arguments employers make are not supported by the evidence.

Myth 1: Given extended trading hours, it’s no longer abnormal for people to work weekends.

Most employees still do not work unsocial hours. According to the Australian Work and Life Index, 38% of workers work unsocial hours; only 32.2% of workers work weekends and 18.9% of workers work evenings after 9pm regularly. These figures include the 13.1% of workers who work both evenings and weekends regularly.

Myth 2: It’s only young single people that work weekends.

While being single with no children is more common than other family types among these workers, they are not a majority: there are also many couples both with and without children, and sole parents.

Women are also more likely than men to work weekends. HILDA data indicates that only 22% of male and 21% of female weekend workers were dependent students; in other words, 78% of all weekend workers were not dependent and pay their own bills.

Myth 3: The disadvantages of working weekends are only bad for those who work very long hours.

Employers argue that the adverse effects associated with working weekends are only relevant to those who work very long hours, and that the days and times themselves are no longer relevant, either because people no longer engage in the activities which previous decisions attempted to protect, or because these activities can be made up on other days and at other times.

But those who work on weekends do so at the sacrifice of time with friends and family, time which cannot be simply made up through time spent at other times during the week. This is particularly acute on Sundays, which remain a time for spending time with family. In spite of claims to the contrary, the differentiation between Saturdays and Sundays remains relevant in modern Australian society.

In general, the recompense of penalty rates is the key reason for willingly working weekends; with far fewer doing so to meet their own flexibility needs. However, the experience of the Work Choices era, and the importance and power of employer expectation, does suggest that many employees would not, in the absence of penalty rates, be able to avoid weekend work due to fear of losing their jobs, and indeed employees being forced to work weekends for no extra pay seems the most likely consequence of removing penalty rates.

Myth 4: Those who work in industries that pay penalty rates are not low paid.

Many workers on penalty rates are among the low paid. According to the Australian Work and Life Index, 37.8% of workers who work weekends only and receive penalty rates rely on these to meet household expenses. This increases to 48.8% for those working both evenings and weekends, and 52.2% for Sundays only.

Myth 5: Reducing or eliminating penalty rates would increase employment.

The empirical evidence for increased employment as a result of reducing penalty rates is non-existent. Employer arguments have been based essentially on economic theory, which is merely hypothesis in the absence of empirical confirmation. What may be relevant in terms of the impact of wages on employment is that none of the available empirical evidence suggests minimum wages have a significant effect on net employment, a point reiterated by the Productivity Commission.

While some studies do suggest a substitution effect, this would be a matter of balancing one set of employed workers against another – older workers versus youth. In the absence of minima the wages of those who are employed would be lower. However, a number of studies suggest no effect at all, and some suggest a positive effect.

Given the evidence, it is difficult to see any benefits likely to accrue from the abolition or reduction of penalty rates for employees, employment levels or greater availability of services to the public.