Business leaders have touted this as a victory for both employers and workers. This could not be further from the truth. A casual worker on the lowest retail youth rates gets paid roughly $9.50/hour. A ‘full’ 1.5 hour shift for this young worker would barely bring in $14. To put this in context, a daily concession train ticket costs $5.80. It will cost a student almost half their day’s wage to get to and from work.
The exemption allows shorter shifts where ‘a longer period of employment is not possible.’ This allegedly refers both to the employers’ requirements and the students’ unavailability. Business groups and right wing politicians portray the relationship between bosses and students as an equal one. Yet young students have no choice about where they work, no say in their working conditions and no control over their wages.
The three-hour minimum shift is a protection against exploitation, in an industry infamous for its treatment of young workers. Bosses shouldn’t be allowed to treat workers as dispensable: the previous minimum was designed to prevent workers turning up for a shift and being sent home whenever the employer felt like it.
UNITE’s Brunswick Street campaign revealed that the existing guidelines are very rarely policed or upheld as it is. The current pressure on young retail workers to be flexible about wages and conditions is intense; casual workers have little or no scope to complain about their mistreatment. While none of this will come as a surprise to retail workers, this new change removes one of the few existing rights they had.
These changes are a slippery slope. With young casuals working shorter shifts on outrageously low wages, there’s no doubt that adult casuals will be expected to become competitively flexible. Newspapers like The Australian are already calling on bosses to push for the changes to be extended to adults.
The government and the SDA have been hypocritically silent on the issue. Last year Julia Gillard reproached Tony Abbott for proposing the same change that has just been approved on her watch.
Youth rates must be abolished and the three-hour minimum shift retained to put a stop to the current two-tier race to the bottom. The best way to keep and gain your rights is to organise your workplace. As this Fair Work ruling demonstrates, the government will not do it for you.
Join UNITE and fight back against shorter hours and lower pay!