The after-school job is the comeback kid

FairWork Australia’s decision will allow young workers more flexibility. AAP

Fair Work Australia’s decision to relax the minimum shift requirement for school kids from three hours to 90 minutes has been praised by employer groups and criticised by unions, who fear low-paid teens will replace adult workers.

Is this a good decision?

It’s a step in the right direction, but I think they have bound it up in too much red tape. Indeed, Fair Work Australia seems to be having a bet each way.

To appease unions, they have restricted it to school kids, they require parental consent, and the person involved must have a stated preference to work between 3pm and 6.30pm on school days.

For employers, on the other hand, there is now the possibility of hiring school kids for less than three hours a shift - and I think those kids will like that too.

ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence, on the other hand, says this is not a good outcome for kids. In his view, many will be exploited, with the meagre earnings received offset by the costs of getting to work.

But in most cases we are are talking about jobs that are in the local neighbourhood. For most of these jobs there aren’t big costs. Further, the conditions on offer - a few hours after school being paid at casual rates - are just what many of these kids are seeking.

After all, not every kid is going to want to work a minimum of three hours straight after school, as is currently required. They simply have too many other things in their life they’d like to be doing.

Is there a possibility this decision could be expanded to affect adult workers?

This possibility would still seem to be a very long way off, which in my view is unfortunate. I can see little reason why there should be any restriction for any group.

It could, for example, be easily be extended to university students, many of whom are studying full-time and only interested in part-time casual work. My first job was teaching kids to swim. I was needed between 4 and 6 each day, and as far as I was concerned that was just perfect.

We also must bear in mind that just because the potential exists for workers to be offered short shifts, does not mean they will accept those jobs. Unless the hours are consistent with preferences, most will tell the employer to get stuffed.

Sure, there are people in very weak bargaining positions, and that’s why we have minimum standards for wages and hours. But do we need minimum engagement times? For most operations short shifts are inefficient and so will not be pursued by employers.

Such arrangements, however, can be important in businesses where demand varies over the course of a day, such as in the retail or hospitality sectors. In these sectors there is often a need for workers during the periods of peak demand, which can be quite short (and intense).

But in many other other businesses, such arrangements are not efficient. Indeed, in many industries many people work very long hours, something which the ACTU has also been very critical of.

I can accept that some people get a raw deal, but on balance the current minimum is hurting more people than it’s helping.

What about the union’s argument?

The unions’ thinking appears to be that employers will take on cheap teenagers to replace adults.

But when the three hour minimum was introduced last year as part of the creation of the Fair Work laws, we didn’t have a big movement in the other direction, with large numbers of young people getting sacked. Some may have lost their jobs, but in many cases this will have been because they quit; they didn’t want to work a minimum of three hours.

We’re also only talking about two sectors - retail and hospitality - where the number of people affected by this decision is likely to be large.

And even then, I do not expect a marked change in employment patterns. Take supermarkets. These stores are open for such long hours that they no longer have demand as heavily concentrated into one part of the day or week as might have been true in the past. I thus cannot see a sudden surge in demand for kids for after school hours work.

Bottom-line; in industries where it makes sense for people to work short hours, let employers and employees sort it out. And in industries where it doesn’t, short hour shifts simply won’t exist.

And requirements that there be minimum periods of engagement do not necessarily make any workers better off. Workers with preferences for short engagements are clearly worse off. And other workers working longer more traditional shifts may find that they are only expected to work harder and more intensely during periods of high demand. This is just a recipe for more stress.