Holiday Pay For Australian Workers Could Be On The Chopping Block Next Year

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Here’s a question.

Should more people be working but earning lower penalty rates? Or should penalty rates stay and less businesses be open on holidays and some weekends – but with less people working?

It’s the real-world collision of ideas between business and workers which will be tested by the Fair Work Commission in 2015 as part of its review of modern awards.

The commission announced earlier this week that in accordance with the Fair Work Act it will “as soon as practicable after 1 January 2014 the Commission will commence the first 4 yearly review of modern awards.” At the same time the Government announced the Productivity Commission will review the Fair Work Act.

Part of what they will look at is whether or not, and by how much, award loading for working on weekends and public holidays will be applicable across the Australian award system.

Fairfax media this morning reported that ACTU President Ged Kearney said, “If employer groups have their way, this could be the last year millions of Australian workers will be paid existing penalty rates for working weekends, late nights and public holidays – including Christmas.”

But in a statement after the productivity review was announced Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Kate Carnell said that:

If we are going to turn around the unemployment trend and grow the economy then we must honestly look at greater flexibility when it comes to working in a 24/7 economy.

We need to make sure penalty rates are realistic and don’t make businesses unviable.

This is where the ideological debate between unions and business has real world consequences.

Not many people want to give up their Christmas or Australia Day without adequate compensation by way of penalty loadings. Likewise many Australians still see Sundays as that one day of the week when they should be able to hang with their family and friends, and relax.

But in a modern lifestyle, the 24/7 economy Kate Carnell is talking about, demands, wants, and I hesitate to say what some perceive as needs, means that often this family time is spent in restaurants, hotels, shops and generally out and about where “other” Australians need to be working. To serve us coffee, lunch, a beer, a new pair of shoes.

So it seems fair to many Australians that when we aren’t working, because we want the day off, that those who are serving us get decent compensation. It’s only fair after all.

But the ACCI argues that because of penalty rates some businesses can’t open – they just wouldn’t make any money when they tally receipts versus expenses – and so less people are employed.

But as Maurice Newman noted recently in an interview with Business Insider it’s hard to have an adult conversation about workplace reform without the spectre of WorkChoices rearing its ugly head.

Ged Kearney and the ACTU are worried that the wages and conditions of Australian workers are under attack from the twin reviews of the Productivity and Fair Work Commissions.

That’s a reasonable concern.

But Carnell counters that, “reform does not mean dismantling penalty rates altogether, but it does mean ensuring businesses and employees don’t suffer. We otherwise risk condemning large numbers of people to unemployment and underemployment.”

Ultimately that’s the point, or at least the question for Australians to answer.

As the economy slows and as unemployment rises, do we protect the entitlements of those in the workforce now, or do we change those entitlements and give those out of work a chance to gain employment?

It’s a question worthy of a national debate and probably part of the big economic debate Joe Hockey wants Australia to have next year.

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