WORKING HOURS: by Tim CannonNews Weekly
The high cost of cheap and convenient shopping
, October 1, 2011
There is mounting pressure on the Coalition to shake off the ghosts of elections past and embrace once more an unashamedly deregulationist approach to industrial relations.
The employer association, the Australian Industry Group, has formally called for greater flexibility in working arrangements for Australian employees. The Australian Productivity Commission has said that greater flexibility is needed to avoid stagnation, particularly in the retail industry.
Meanwhile the high exchange value of the Australian dollar, and the exemption from GST on overseas purchases, mean that shoppers are increasingly opting for online retail, with dire consequences for retailers such as booksellers Borders, and Angus & Robertson.
In terms of the retail industry, greater flexibility affects two key areas: the ease with which employees can be hired and fired, and the hours they can be expected to work. And while the former tends to attract the lion’s share of commentary, changes in the regulation of working hours in the retail industry stand to have a significant impact on employees and their families.
What’s more, calls for greater flexibility in structuring employees’ working hours are compounded by consumer expectations, particularly in a nation of astonishing wealth and prosperity like Australia.
Here the consumer really is king. And the king’s decree seems to be: convenience at all costs. There is an expectation that shops will be open whenever I, the almighty consumer, want them to be open.
But what does all this mean for retail employees?
At present, the General Retail Industry Award — the benchmark for working conditions in the industry — says that retail workers can be expected to work for normal rates of pay anytime between 7am and 9pm Monday to Saturday. That’s hardly a stifling span of hours.
Retail workers can also be rostered on for Sundays, although employers have to pay their employees double-time for the trouble.
The Sunday penalty rate has led at least one commentator to frame the current system as some kind of religious anachronism. After all, aren’t there loads of teenagers and students and the like who actually want to work Sundays?
Well yes, there are plenty of youngsters who would work Sundays for peanuts. But that’s not really the point. Abolishing Sunday penalty rates would mean that any retail worker — and let’s not forget that the retail industry is the largest employer in the nation — could be expected to work Sundays for no extra pay. Sunday becomes just like any other day. The standard is lowered.
That may be fine for teenagers and students, but the retail industry employs more than just teenagers and students. In fact across Australia, fewer than 35 per cent of retail employees are under the age of 25. By contrast, almost 53 per cent of Australian retail workers are aged between 25 and 54. And the majority of those are women.
If you think about what might be going on in the lives of that 25-to-54 year-old demographic, you’re thinking kids, mortgages, bills, school-fees, children’s weekend sporting commitments, and so on.
It’s a time of life when weekends are important. While the kids are at school, mum and dad can both be at work, but on the weekends it’s a different story. In an industry where employees have traditionally had precious little bargaining power, if mums and dads in the retail industry can be expected to work Sundays, then it’s bye-bye weekend family time.
In my time as a union rep in the retail industry, an important element of my job was to help working mums haggle for reasonable working hours. For an employee with kids in school, a managerial directive that the employee work Saturdays, or evenings, could throw family life into disarray. On the other hand, the prospect of losing a shift altogether could be the difference between making a mortgage payment or not.
Deep down, I don’t think the lowering of working standards in the retail industry is something that most Australians really want, even if we do get miffed about shops not being open when we want them to be.
It’s not about hanging on to old-fashioned religious mores; it’s about hanging on to the precious little family time that hasn’t yet been made to conform to the dictates of the all-powerful “economy”.
Of course, all that is just pie-in-the-sky idealism if it means Australian retailers can’t be competitive in vying for the consumer dollar.
But consumers need to be aware that by adopting a cheapest-and-most-convenient-at-all-costs mentality in deploying their hard-earned dollars, they are pressuring employers to make working conditions for the retail industry’s more than 1.5 million employees worse, not better.
It’s something that bears pondering next time you go e-bargain hunting.
Tim Cannon is a former industrial organiser for the NSW shop assistants’ union (SDA), and his mother and sister own and run a bookshop in Sydney.