Big business continues attack on penalty rates

Recently there has been a lot of pressure from big business to cut penalty rates. These calls are an attack on the wages of many workers, especially those who work in hospitality, fast food and retail. Penalty rates are higher rates of pay you must be paid for when you work nights, weekends and public holidays. Penalty rates compensate for the anti-social hours that people have to work. If penalty rates are cut, it will affect everyone that works nights, weekends and public holidays. This is a direct attack on the already low pay that workers in these industries get.

Recently Gail Kelly (who is the CEO of Westpac and on the board of the Business Council of Australia) said that penalty rates should be cut to keep up with the times. In an article printed in The Australian in February, Kelly said that in today’s modern world the standard working hours between 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday, are too restrictive. She argues “there are a lot of people who prefer shift work or to work after hours because it suits their overall pattern of their life”.

Penalty rates do not stop anyone from working these hours; they only compensate those who work them with a slightly higher pay rate. More important is the fact that even though working these hours suits some people, any changes would apply to all workers regardless if working late nights and weekends ‘suits them’.

Penalty rates have been fought for and won by for a reason; late nights, weekends and public holidays are times to socialise and to rest. People who work these shifts deserve compensation for giving these times up.

The real reason Kelly and her big business colleagues are concerned with penalty rates is that higher pay rates cuts into their profit margins. Just like how workers join a trade union to protect and improve upon their pay rates and working conditions, so too do bosses. The Business Council of Australia (whom Kelly is speaking on behalf of) is effectively a bosses union. This body represents Australia’s top 100 earning companies, who want to reduce workers wages in order to boost their own profits.

The Australian also reported that The Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia has called for small business to be able to make their own awards without penalty rates. This would severely disadvantage workers who worked for small businesses because they would end up earning less then their fellow workers employed in bigger companies. Workers should not be disadvantaged for just working in a small business.

It is not true that only a small amount of people would be affected by this. Over 97% of businesses in Australia are considered ‘small’ businesses (employing fewer than 20 people). Small businesses employ nearly half of the private sector workers in Australia. As a group, small business is Australia’s largest employer. There are nearly five million people that would be affected by these penalty rate cuts.

This is a cynical move to try to divide workers in different workplaces. Different industry standards for small, medium and big business would make it harder to run industry-wide campaigns through union activism, leaving workers isolated.

Not only would such a move drive down the wages of the workers directly affected by these changes, in the long run it will drive down the wages of all workers. If penalty rates are taken away from workers in small business, big business would eventually try to cut penalty rates too.

It should not be left up to business to decide what they would prefer to pay (or not pay) workers. In these uncertain economic times, wages and conditions are being attacked on many fronts. The only way to preserve and improve upon your wages and conditions is to join your union. If you work in the fast food, retail or hospitality industries, join UNITE today!

To read the article published in The Australian visit: