Whether or not they realise what they’re doing, Australia’s business people, economists and politicians are in the process of dismantling the weekend and phasing out public holidays. And they’re doing it in the name of making us better off.
Historically, the two arrangements that have protected the weekend and public holidays from encroachment by employers are state government restrictions on trading hours and the requirement in industrial awards that employees required to work at ”unsociable hours” be paid an additional penalty rate.
Charging employers a penalty was intended to discourage them from making unreasonable demands on their employees unless absolutely necessary.
The first assault on community-wide days off came in the second half of the 1980s with the deregulation of trading hours as part of micro-economic reform.
Not much later, the move to bargaining over pay rises, and then bargaining at the enterprise level, allowed employers to push for penalty rates to be abandoned in return for higher ”annualised” wages.
Employers inculcated the view penalty rates were an anachronism standing in the way of progress and modernity. Many still think that way. One of the goals of John Howard’s Work Choices was to make it easier – and less expensive – for employers to get rid of penalty payments.
(Another of its provisions was to make it easier for workers to ”cash out” part of their annual leave – to exchange days off for money. How this squared with the original rationale for forcing employers to give their workers paid holidays was never explained.)
Julia Gillard’s Fair Work changes to Work Choices represented the first setback in the push towards the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week economy. They made it harder for employers to buy out penalty payments. And the ”modern award” process – which replaced the various state awards with single national awards – inevitably involved increasing some penalty rates in some states.
But now the push has resumed. Last week, the NSW government moved to join Victoria in allowing all shops – not just those in the CBD – to open on Boxing Day. Now, say the retailers, all we need is for restrictions to be lifted on Easter Sunday.
And this week, the major banks revealed their intention to push for the definition of ordinary hours in the national banking award to be extended to include Saturday afternoons and all of Sundays. The banks say they’d still pay penalty rates, but the union doubts this promise would last. It says the banks’ goal is to be able to roster employees to work any five days of the week without recognising traditional work patterns.
What’s the banks’ justification for seeking such a change? To promote ”flexible and efficient modern work practices in a way that has proper regard to the considerations of productivity and employment costs”.
Ah yes. It would make the economy more flexible and efficient, and thus raise productivity. Well, in that case, say no more. Silly me.
It’s not hard to see why there’s been so little public questioning of this push towards a 24/7 economy. It’s highly convenient to be able to shop whenever we have the time. The more two-income families we have, the more we value the ability to shop throughout the weekend.
It also fits with the trend towards leisure being commercialised – becoming something we buy (a meal out, a show) rather than something we do (kick a football in the park with our kids).
But this belief that life would be better if shops, restaurants and places of entertainment were open all hours rests on the assumption you and I won’t be among those required to work unsociable hours to make it happen. An even less obvious assumption is that the push for a 24/7 economy will stop when it has captured shopping and entertainment; it won’t continue and reach those of us who work in factories and offices.
As usual, the ”flexibility” being sought is one-sided. Employers gain the ability to require people to work – or not work – at times that suit their firm’s efforts to maximise its profits.
If those times don’t fit with your family responsibilities – or just with your desire to enjoy your life (you selfish person, you) – or if the boss’s requirements keep changing in unpredictable ways, that’s just too bad.
It’s the price to be paid for getting more prosperous (with the boss’s standard of living rising quite a bit faster than yours).
But this is the part of modern life that makes no sense to me.
Accepting the economists’ argument that keeping the economy running for more hours in the week is more efficient and so will raise our material standard of living, how exactly will this leave us better off?
Why does being able to buy more stuff make up for husbands and wives being able to see less of each other, having less time with the kids, having a lot more trouble getting together with your friends, and having your day off when everyone else is at school or working?
Why is this an attractive future? Why should our elected representatives reorganise our economy in ways that suit business and promote consumption, but do so at the expense of employees’ private lives?
This is a classic case of business people, economists and politicians urging on us a mentality that prioritises the economic – the material – over the other dimensions of our lives. Yet again, no one pauses to ask what these ”reforms” will do to our relationships.
Why is it the politicians who bang on most about the sanctity of The Family are also those most inclined to make family life more difficult?