Every time there is a change in government, or even leadership, the Australian workplace relations system invariably takes centre stage, with the familiar voices of the political right using the opportunity to call for deregulation of the labour market and the reduction of minimum entitlements.

Malcolm Turnbull’s recent House of Cards-esque rise to Prime Minister is no exception. The Productivity Commission draft report has been out for a few months, and predictably, it calls for the current workplace relations system to be scrapped, with a particular focus on penalty rates. Turnbull’s response remains in line with his predecessors: the government will consider the removal or reduction of penalty rates.

It has been a sharp reminder that while there’s a new leader, it’s the same old Liberal Party.

Turnbull, employer associations and business groups have rolled out the hackneyed arguments in support of the removal or reduction of penalty rates they have relied on for decades: penalty rates harm productivity and therefore the economy, Sundays do not have the same significance they once had as fewer people go to church, businesses are losing money by paying Sunday rates (so workers should pick up the slack), and we now live in a seven-day economy.

What distinguishes the government’s latest response from Liberal Party proposals of the past is a proposed two-tiered penalty rates system. That is, certain industries that the government considers “necessary”, such as emergency services and nursing, could keep their Sunday rates while industries such as hospitality, entertainment and retail could have their Sunday rates wound back.

Once again, the lowest-paid sectors of staff are at the front line of this war on our regulated workplace relations system. These include the hospitality and retail staff we expect to be available to assist when we dine out and shop in our spare time. They are typically required to work nights and weekends, while the rest of Australia is enjoying time with their families and friends. However, according to the federal government, these workers’ inconvenience and time away from loved ones is of less value than those workers with jobs in other industries, such as emergency services.

Alternatively, they are trying to come up with creative solutions to the inevitable political fallout of interfering with the working conditions of public sector and emergency services workers, which are typically unionised workforces.

The proposed two-tier system will still give the employer associations and business groups what they want: a step toward the removal of regulations around working hours across all industries.

In the short term, this means that, as usual, it will be the vulnerable, highly casualised workers who will be collateral damage in the ideological war on our workplace relations system.

Despite the government’s strategic avoidance of highly unionised industries, its proposal for a two-tiered penalty rate system has been met with significant opposition from Labor, the Greens and trade unions.

Part of this centres on the fact that the government’s arguments miss a key point: that under our existing Fair Work Commission laws there already are provisions, with protections, for workers and employers to negotiate agreements around entitlements that ensure no one is worse off.

Furthermore, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has also rebuked the Productivity Commission’s claims that penalty rates impinge on productivity and has estimated that 4.5 million Australians rely on penalty rates as part of their income, and removing such a significant amount of income from their pockets will actually harm the economy, as it is likely to reduce consumerism.

Our lowest-paid workers spend a far greater proportion on the necessities of life for their families — food, clothing, utilities and housing. Many do not have the luxury of savings plans or investment portfolios.

In relation to the arguments that Sundays are not as significant as they once were and we live in a seven-day economy, one response is for the federal government to have a conversation with those organisations that hold events other than work on Sundays — the sporting organisations, the religious organisations, the charities and non-profits — and explain to them why Sunday is now a day of work and not a day of activity, reflection or contribution.

Another response has been to suggest that Parliament sit on Saturdays and Sundays.

Such a suggestion is unlikely to receive much of a take up from the government or those agitating for a reduction in entitlements, but it does serve as a reminder of who is not going to be affected by this attack on the regulation of working hours and erosion of minimum entitlement: politicians, business owners and the top end of town.

Instead, the affected are those who are required to work unsociable hours and rely on minimum safety net entitlements, such as penalty rates, to make ends meet.

*Giri Sivaraman is a principal and Alana Heffernan is an associate in the Employment and Industrial Law team at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. 

Peter Fray

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