An overwhelming majority of voters are opposed to any cuts to penalty rates for night shifts, weekends and public holidays according to today’s Essential Report.

Essential found 81% of voters surveyed think that people who are required to work outside of normal hours should receive a higher hourly rate of pay and 13% think they should not. There has been no change of opinion on this issue since this question was asked in May 2013.

A large majority of all demographic and voter groups agree that workers should receive higher rates for working outside normal hours — although Labor voters (91%) and Greens voters (91%) are somewhat more likely to support this than Liberal/National voters (69%).

The poll was conducted from Friday, after Fairfax Media reported the previous weekend that employers were urging an overhaul to penalty rates in submissions to the Fair Work Commission, which is reviewing minimum wages and conditions in more than 200 awards.

What’s more, voters do not buy the argument that penalty rates are preventing employers in the hospitality and retail sectors (where calls for reform are loudest) from taking on more workers. A substantial majority (over 60%) of all demographic groups believe it will more likely result in bigger profits for businesses. Only Liberal/National voters have a somewhat different view — 50% think it is more likely to result in bigger profits and 32% more jobs.

As Crikey wrote here last week, the submissions raised fears of a return of WorkChoices, the hard-line industrial relations policy of 2006 that helped seal the fate of the former prime minister John Howard at the federal election the following year. Loss of penalty rates was one of the two key hot-button issues that counted against the government that year, as then employment minister Joe Hockey told his biographer Madonna King.

The Productivity Commission is reviewing the workplace relations framework this year commissioned by now Hockey and Employment Minister Eric Abetz. Today’s Essential figures should serve as a warning to backbenchers like Dennis Jensen and Alex Hawke — as well as employer groups — who have called for penalty rates to be overhauled.

On voting intentions, Essential’s poll, its first for the year, also finds the government’s figures have deteriorated over Christmas.

Labor has improved two percentage points, to 54%-46%, since the last poll in mid-December (when it lead by 52%-48%) — a four-week period that included Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ministerial reshuffle and the Lindt cafe siege in Sydney.

Interestingly, the figures on voting intentions moved in the opposite direction to yesterday’s Roy Morgan poll. Morgan had the ALP out-polling the Liberal National parties by 54.5%-45.5% , but this marked a three-point improvement for the Coalition from the 57.5%-42.5% recorded last December. As Crikey’s Poll Bludger reported, many suspected that December poll was a rogue.

Both Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten record improvements in their net approval rating, according to Essential. But Abbott is still unpopular: 53% of respondents disapprove of the job he is doing as Prime Minister — down 2% since the last time this question was asked in December — and only 37% approve of the job Tony Abbott is doing (up 5%). This represents a change in net rating from -23 to -16.

By contrast, Bill Shorten registered his first positive net rating since January last year. Thirty-nine percent (up 4% since December) of respondents approve of the job Shorten is doing as Opposition Leader and 33% (down 6%) disapprove — for a net rating of +6 (up 10%).