Why I rate penalty rates

I’ll never get used to 4am wakeup calls required for covering the Breakfast radio shift. In the words of one of the best radio hosts in the country, self-styled “Brismanian” Tim Cox, “it’s just not natural”.

Not since student days waitressing in Hobart have I ever done anything simply for money. But these days, penalty rates are a godsend for a writer working casual shifts to help pay the bills. They also help offset the shift in metabolism and social life incurred with working unnatural hours. Not to mention the cost of repair needed to drag yourself out of bed before the birds, a minor vanity in the grand scheme of things except please don’t assume I’m letting myself go next time you see me.

Driving into work under the Milky Way at 430am, you see consul operators in petrol stations, street cleaners, rubbish collectors and delivery drivers, all doing the sorts of jobs most people choose not to. The only food place open at this time is a bakery. We think we live in a 24/7 economy but, clearly, not at this hour or in the real world.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 40% of Australian workers have some form of non-traditional pattern of working hours (ie 9 to 5). This doesn’t mean that we’re all open all hours. If we are, it’s either because you want or must be, or you haven’t learnt to shut down technology and have a weekend off.

There are many arguments for why penalty rates should stay, for all kinds of workers, and you can count and keep track of them on the ACTU website, currently running a petition to “Protect Our Penalty Rates” in response to the Productivity Commission’s  proposed revision of overtime and weekend working. It’s a debate we need to claw back from business and make relevant to people’s lives.

In particular, I’d like to wave a banner for creative people in rural and regional communities who put lifestyle first. We may be like herding cats, working our own hours on very little, but the Tasmanian economy has long benefitted from things creative people make.

A 2014 study by the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life called “Evenings, Nights & Weekends: working unsocial hours and penalty rates” found that those on the receiving end of penalty rates were more likely to be single, without children at home, on casual contracts, or working in rural or regional locations. And that the arts and recreation services industry had the highest proportion of employees who work on weekends only. This is especially relevant for Tasmanian workers, with nearly a quarter employed in the arts and recreation services sector.

Most creative people do not expect to become millionaires, although it would be nice. Instead, artists are content to work for the love of their art, driven to create beauty, intrigue, or express a truth.

An artist doesn’t expect to receive penalty rates for their creative output, but may work casually at a job paying weekend rates in order to support an artistic way of life. For many, it’s an absolute necessity.

According to a 3-year study by the Department of Economics at Macquarie University, the average income of Australian authors is $12,900, with only 5% of authors earning the average annual income of $61,000 from their creative practice. Penalty rates paid to casual workers can offer a lifeline, enabling more time to be creative, with less time spent at a bill-paying day job.
At a time when cultural tourism and employment in the creative industries are both on the increase in Tasmania, we should be trying to protect the ability of those who work creatively to survive, especially when few are protected by a union, most work alone and often in insolation.

I hope the government also looks at other ideas before thinking of cutting the pay of people who earn the minimum hourly wage. For example, Launceston based freelance butler Simon McInerney suggests fewer regional public holidays because “very few waiters can generate sales to cover their $40+ hourly rates” and “of the nine or so public holidays a year, only three fall during peak tourism/holiday season. Fewer public holidays would also have affects beyond hospitality/tourism.”

Hospitality workers like McInerney are frustrated when groups like the TCCI single out retail and hospitality as the focus for where change needs to happen, especially when most restaurants/bars/retailers are busier on weekends than weekdays.

“All too often the focus is on the few, sometimes costly, days rather than annual business turnover,” he observes.

For me, a writer struggling to make a full time living in the country, earning double time on a Sunday, or time and a quarter on Saturday, or penalty rates doing the Breakfast shift from time to time, frees me up creatively, makes me less reliant on the Monday to Friday office routine where, generally speaking, the pace is set by others and space for creativity may be stifled by a corporate culture.

While Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO, Kate Carnell, says “we don’t look at Sundays the way we used to” and “we have to accept that the train’s left the station on this”, the reality is far more complex. Penalty rates should not be changed to make the weekend more like Monday to Friday. Is football ever played on a Tuesday?

The business community’s view that working on a Sunday is no different to working on Saturday, or any other day of the week, is just plain wrong. There is another way of looking at it – more in favour of life than work. Our so-called 24/7 economy could mean that every day holds the possibility of being Saturday or Sunday. That if we are not taking our weekends at the weekend, then taking weekends during the week becomes a matter of necessity.

As one petitioner wrote on the Australian Unions website: “We are humans (not machines) and we work to live, we don’t live to work”.

First published in Tasweekend, The Mercury

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