a comment by an ISG member

The recent decision on penalty rates by the Fair Work Commission made me recall my own student days, going to University during the week (often), and working nights and weekends to cover the costs. I was the first generation to go through under the HECS system and I duly accrued debts, but the high rates of pay for night and weekend work made it possible. I remember a commercial law lecturer from Malaysia saying that this would never be feasible for students in her country, because all menial work attracted very low rates of pay and the students would have to work all week to avoid destitution, let alone have time or energy for studying at Uni. Another friend from the Netherlands always said that people should get high rates of pay and support from the government for all kinds of health and education and other benefits, because healthy educated people were very productive, and who wants to be unhealthy or uneducated or poor? He said that people from countries who treated people like that were generally much better off and happier because there were much lower rates of inequality and better social cohesion. He thought Australians and Anglo’s generally were hilariously primitive in their mean and punitive approach.

The decision of the FWC demonstrates yet more moves in our society to embrace a neo-liberal ideal of market driven reform, in which the apparent need to create ever more ideal conditions for the making of money take precedence over every other human consideration at the expense of ever growing inequality and discontent.

We now hear from commentators that Sunday is the new Saturday, that we live in a crazy 24/7 world in which every day is very much like every other, as if time had been digitised and homogenised and no day was holy, not even a public holiday, much less the weekend. We hear that there should be no difference in going to work behind a bar all night or in an office during the day, even though the hourly rates of pay differ vastly between the two already. We hear that it is not fair on shop owners to make them employ one or two people in reasonable circumstances rather than three or four in poverty. That in a time of record low wages growth, it is more important to allow more money to be retained by the wealthy business owners than to recognise the sacrifice of circadian rhythms and social contact that working ‘odd’ hours involves for workers, even after the clear findings that penalty rates doesn’t compensate people adequately for the damage to health that working shifts at all hours causes.

At a time of growing inequality and with record low wages growth and employment growth being restricted largely to casual and part time employment, whether cutting the financial rewards of such people makes any economic sense or is driven by any economic necessity? In fact it will likely cut consumption by low paid workers and therefore cost jobs.

We could guess that relatively few shop owners or right wing commentators actually have to work outside normal office hours except for very much more significant reward than a waiter on a weekend might receive. But that would be ungenerous and ad homonym. It is more important to The fact is that time in our society is highly regulated, including by day of the week, and it actually makes a huge difference if you have to work at nights or on Saturday and Sunday. From child care to self-care and recreation, the institution of the weekend was a huge step forward in the welfare of the community, especially workers. It allowed time for social contact as well as rest for the middle classes, although it took centuries for it to be routinely available to those at the bottom wrung.

The recognition of the social context and importance of this in the sporting, social and economic life of the community in Australia today is of course crucial in valuing the sacrifice people make when they make their time available for work. Stripping this recognition strikes at the heart of the way our time and our social contacts are organised. Penalty rates and award wages are the defenders of aspects of a communal way of life, moreover, they are the content of greater economic equality. For what purpose do we weaken them? What justifies reducing the sum of human happiness for the benefit of profits for a few? What is the economy for any way, if not to support what it is to be human. Profit is not the measure of all things. Even if the wealthy make extra profits they could theoretically reinvest in new jobs, it is just as likely they will stick it in the bank. The workers however are far more likely to spend the money and drive further economic activity, as well as penalty rates increasing the net resources available to people who must engage in lower skilled and often unattractive work.

Governments vital work in setting wages and directly employing people at decent rates of pay in services which they directly deliver, and which they also use to provide training positions to help develop the necessary skills in the workforce. This also makes a huge contribution to the ability of people in the community to access economic advancement and to maintain a decent standard of living. The retreat of government in recent years in setting basic employment conditions and in directly delivering services has of course made a significant contribution to reducing economic opportunities for many people. It is much harder to get a training position as these can no longer be provided by government operated services, while technical education is increasingly provided by fee for service shonks at great expense as public education retreats. It is these aspects of neo-liberalism which have helped to drive the rise in inequality and resentment across the developed world but also here in Australia. Instead of scapegoating the vulnerable, maybe we should look at the underlying causes of growing inequality and resolve to do something real to address it and to preserve a decent way of life for all Australians.