“Independent” senator spearheads attack on penalty rates and low-paid workers

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South Australian Senator, Nick Xenophon, has outed himself as anything but independent from Australia’s employing classes. He has submitted a private member’s bill, which poses a severe threat to the take-home pay of some of the lowest paid workers in the country.

Called the Fair Work Amendment (Small Business – Penalty Rates Exemption) Bill 2012, his proposed law would remove penalty rates for all workers in the retail, restaurant and catering sectors unless they work more than ten hours a day or 38 hours a week. It does this by treating Saturday and Sunday like any other day and by ignoring shift work. Effectively, it makes all workers in these sectors hourly paid. The only exception is if the employer has more than 20 workers, where the bill does not apply.

According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the bill threatens the take-home pay and conditions of about half a million workers in these notoriously low-paid and insecure industries. Xenophone claims that:

“The original intention of penalty rates was to compensate employees for hours worked outside the standard Monday to Friday working week. This concept is now largely outdated: thanks to improvements in technology, the development of a global economy and the deregulation of trading hours, many businesses trade over all seven days. As such, many part time or casual employees consider weekends to be part of their regular hours.”

The Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) sent a submission to the Senate committee inquiring into the Bill. In it we debunked Xenophon’s claims:

“In any attack on the conditions of working people, both in Australia and more broadly, the use of ‘weasel words’ is never far from the discussion, and the memorandum duly resorts to such language. (‘This concept is largely outdated.’) Actually, unless the Parliament wishes to legislate for all employees to work only during daylight hours, we fail to see how the concept of penalty rates for working at unsociable and/or unhealthy hours is in any way ‘outdated.’”

We noted that:

“The assertion in the memorandum about what casual or part-time workers consider to be their regular hours is just that. Low-paid, insecure workers generally have little choice than to work the hours they’re rostered, no matter how unfriendly the start or finishing times, the spread of hours or the effect on their social and family life or their health. The memorandum is silent on the many full-time workers in the catering, restaurant and retail sectors who, should the bill be enacted, would suddenly find their ‘regular hours’ beginning on a Sunday or ending on a Saturday, with no compensation for the change or the inconvenience.”

In conclusion, we said that:

“…this bill should not be enacted. Far from being a compromise, it is analogous to the State acting as a stand-over merchant for employers: bailing up some of the worst-paid people in the country, pulling wads of notes from their pockets and handing them back to the boss. The affected workers — many of whom are women and young people — are not well off by any measure. This bad law would make them even poorer.”

Pay Justice Action (PJA), a grassroots campaigning group of union activists with a focus on equal pay, also sent a submission. (FSP is actively involved in PJA.) Amelia Taylor, who wrote the submission on behalf of PJA, recounted her experiences in one of the sectors covered by the proposed law:

“I worked in the hospitality sector for over five years and can testify to the effect that working long and unsociable hours can have on many people’s lives. I worked with mothers who could only rarely spend time with their children for a full weekend. I saw marriages and partnerships under stress due to the inability of many hospitality workers to attend family events and mark major milestones such as an anniversary or birthday. I lost touch with good friends who couldn’t understand that I wasn’t going to be available to go to a movie or to dinner at the time that suited everybody else.”

The PJA submission also noted that:

“Australia currently has a gender-based pay gap of 17.4%, where a woman can expect to earn $1 million dollars less than a man over her lifetime, based on average earnings. This is inspite of having won the formal battle for Equal Pay for Equal Work in 1972.

The majority of workers in the retail, catering and restaurant sectors are women. Therefore, any attempt to remove pay from a women-dominated industry has the potential to make the gender-based pay gap even wider, with the average earnings of women workers falling further behind men’s average earnings.”

ACTU fails to lead — again. The response of the country’s peak union body has been to set up a jingoistic web-based “Save Our Aussie Weekend” campaign. As the FSO was completed, just over 5,000 people had signed on to this. Getting endorsers for a website might be fine for lobbying in Canberra, but if we are to head off this fundamental attack on working conditions, then we need a workplace based, grassroots campaign that takes the struggle to workplaces and the streets.

This is a struggle for all workers, not just those in smaller workplaces in catering, restaurant and retail. The Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI) gave the bosses’ game away in the conclusion to its submission:

“The Bill makes a worthwhile contribution because it seeks to address issues of significance for small business, but it could be improved by a broadening of its scope so that it extends to all industries, including tourism and accommodation.

VECCI urges the Committee to consider extending the proposed exemption to all business of less than 20 employees.

In their current form, however, the amendments proposed by the Bill should be supported, as they are a very good start.”

In other words, this is just the beginning of a battle to strip penalty rates across the board. It’s all part of the global neoliberal “project” aimed at removing the gains made by the union movement over the past 150 years and slashing wages in advanced capitalist countries. Mining oligarch, Gina Rineheart, was open about this recently, when she compared Australian mining workers to their counterparts in Botswana, who slave for $2 per day. The European Union’s rulers are taking the threat further, by attempting to impose a compulsory six-day week on all Greek workers. Greek unions responded to this and other austerity proposals by calling a General Strike.

Now a General Strike will not, by itself, stop the attacks on our livelihoods — that will require a fundamental overturn of the economic system. But, paraphrase VECCI it would be a very good start!

Peter Murray, an activist with Pay Justice Action, is a member of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union where shift workers earn a significant proportion of their income from penalty rates.

To read the submissions see: www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/ Committees/Senate_Committees?url=eet_ctte/penalty_rates/submissions.htm The Pay Justice Action submission is number 70 and the Freedom Socialist Party submission is number 109.

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