WITH THE TURNBULL government set to attempt penalty rate reforms its predecessor squibbed at the first sign of hostility from Labor and the unions, the same paleolithic arguments are being trotted out by the same anti-business troglodytes to defend “workers’ rights” fashioned generations ago and which belong in the past. The availability of simple solutions might temper the “rigour” of a flat Earth approach to screwing small businesses.
I’m not going to say too much this morning, as yet another very heavy week beckons (although hopefully things will ease off a little once it is out of the way); I have been tracking the resurgent debate about legislating changes to penalty rates to take some of the burden off small businesses in sections of the economy that typically ceased trading at weekends — and especially on Sundays — and with yet more fatuous pro-union, anti-small business propaganda seeping from the Fairfax Media stable today, some comment is warranted.
One of the standout promotions made by new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in his recent reshuffle, new Employment minister Michaelia Cash, sees a very capable young minister (and a female, for those obsessed with gender) take on a portfolio that was singularly botched under Tony Abbott.
Already decried by the Left in friendly media tomes as “shrill,” a “fanatic” and “talentless” — perversely enough, excellent pointers to her likely effectiveness in her new post, albeit an indictment on those in the Left purporting to support the advancement of women in politics — it does rather seem that if anyone in Liberal ranks is capable of dragging the archaic regime of penalty rates during reasonable working hours (in the modern sense) into the 21st century, Cash may be just the lady to do so.
She is said to idolise former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: it is to be fervently hoped she shows the same disciplined commitment to reasonable and necessary reform that that great leader exhibited in the United Kingdom during a substantial career in public life over more than 30 years.
Her first test — the Senate in its current anarchic and counter-democratic configuration notwithstanding — is fashioning a regime for work and pay in industries that to some degree didn’t exist in their current shape just 20 years ago.
A criticism that has been sporadically made of Australia’s unions throughout the lifespan of this column is that in the most literal sense of the word, they are the most conservative institutions in the country; the world has evolved around them and so has Australian society, but the unions — in all their ugly malevolence — have remained rooted in the past.
In fact, a credible argument exists that they have regressed to the 1970s, when industrial sabotage and the economic vandalism inherent in bringing industries and cities to a standstill to enforce their will were their stock tools of trade; the litany of lawless thuggery being uncovered through the trade union royal commission is a good pointer to what I am talking about; the string of referrals of the bastards responsible for it to law enforcement agencies to be charged and prosecuted is another.
I hope readers have perused the article I have linked this morning from The Age; if they haven’t, here it is again — and it all sounds very reasonable, subtly emotive, and seemingly sober until it is pointed out that until the early 1990s, Australian cities more or less closed by 6pm. On Sundays, they were ghost towns.
Certainly, the intervening period has seen a gradual liberalising of trade laws, and consumer demand for retail, recreation and hospitality services has grown quickly to fill the extended hours during which businesses in those verticals are permitted to operate and do operate.
But it is worth remembering that weekend penalty rates were originally fashioned, explicitly, to provide recompense for work during “unsociable” hours: and by “unsociable,” this was explicitly aimed at those who were unable to attend church on Sundays — and framed in the sense that “work” took place between 9am and 5pm from Monday to Friday, in an era when anything outside those hours was very much the exception.
How many of those clamouring for the retention of penalty rates in full — and not least unionists happy to see small family businesses forced to pay up to $80 per hour for casual staff on Sundays with neither reserve nor compunction — also run around wearing the proud badge of atheism on their sleeve?
How many of those who pocket those wages are happy to put their hand out for the entitlement, with an utter disregard (or contempt) for the church-based social structures that in large part are the reason they even exist?
And how many people on both sides of the penalty rate debate accept, at every time other than when this exact subject is in prospect, that modern lifestyles and work requirements have effectively rendered redundant the notion of a 40-hour week that runs during daylight hours on weekdays only?
As ever, there is more political posturing by power-mad unions driven by unreasoning hatred of businesses and political conservatives to these questions than there is any real concern for “workers’ rights.”
Happily, however, there are two very simple solutions to the question of penalty rates; if the unions, the ALP, and their pliant mouthpieces that are the Fairfax press and the ABC are determined to be intransigent on the question, then it’s one that can be easily resolved.
After all — as the Fairfax piece today posits rhetorically — why should retail, hospitality and entertainment workers be “singled out for wage cuts?”
One, businesses in those industries could be exempted from trade practice and competition laws governing price gouging, abuse of market power and racketeering, and given the discretion to increase the prices of their goods, services and other offerings by 150% at all times such a loading is payable to staff.
Maybe if the $80 per hour waiter is serving a $100 main meal that usually costs $40 — or if the $60 usher at the cinema is checking a $50 movie ticket that usually costs $20 — the average idiot taking his family out on “unsociable” Sundays, or at times outside the obsolete 9 to 5 weekday stereotype, or (shock, horror) on a Saturday night outing that happens to tick past midnight, will cheerily fork out knowing he’s protecting “workers’ rights” and happy to become a fully owned subsidiary in the unions’ campaign to destroy business and hit “the rich:” proving the point that people have too much money if they can pay, and that seeing to it that some of it is shanghaied in the name of “the worker” is an impost everyone will laughingly and civic-mindedly accept.
Does anyone believe that?
Or two, if this is such an irreconcilable problem (and remember, trade hours were only really liberalised over the last 20 years), maybe it would just be easier to abolish Sunday trading altogether, and to reinstitute curbs on after-hours trading as well: and to dispense with the problem at a stroke.
I don’t think people would accept that either.
People who are paid by the hour who are working more than eight hours at a time, or more than 40 hours per week, or between the hours of midnight and 6am deserve some kind of loading: I don’t suggest for a second that they don’t, and indeed these are the people for whom there may be a case to pay even more than they are receiving right now.
But the point here is that the entire concept of “unsociable hours” as currently enshrined is based on social norms and in terms of community standards that no longer exist — and the structures that govern who can earn what, and when, either need to be overhauled to reflect the movement of the times or the (praiseworthy, common sense, natural) liberalisation of trade that has enriched Australian society and expanded choice must regrettably be wound back.
In the end, knuckle-dragging troglodytes from the unions are less concerned with the “rights” of those they claim to represent than they are with the perpetuation of their own feather-bedded sinecures: and if their role in a modern society is so crucial, some explanation based in fact as to why the union movement continues to lose members in both real and absolute terms is long overdue.
Spare us the propaganda of this being a call to enslave workers and exploit them; the revolution may not start today, and in any case the vapid bullshit the unions and their chums advance to that effect is, by present-day standards, puerile, immature, and childish.
No-one is advocating anything less than fair recompense for fair work (and yes, I am mindful I’ve used the F word twice there).
The problem is that we now live in a 24 hour world which once operated, in the main, for just eight to ten hours per day; working on a Saturday or a Sunday is normal now, and so is the proliferation of evening jobs for students, second income seekers and the otherwise unemployable that was nowhere near as extensive two decades ago as it is today.
Hypocritically sticking with obsolete and antiquated definitional arguments to oppose reform to what constitutes “ordinary hours of work” is an indictment on unions and a betrayal of the people they masquerade — when it suits them, and when they’re not extorting business even further — as the champions of.
A more sensible discussion would be how a restructuring of pay scales might translate into extra shifts in a restaurant, or more frequent tours at a theme park, or some other formulation for increasing the overall amount of work on offer in exchange for some relief for small businesses from the punitive (and increasingly prohibitive) real costs of weekend penalty rates.
If the unions are so wedded to their flat Earth positions, there are alternatives. They might not be popular and they might be undesirable.
But in the end, if the cost of labour and the framework that defines it are the only ingredient of the industrial equation that refuses, forcibly, to evolve — despite the world around it having quite literally moved on — then perhaps the only solution is to shut the whole thing down.
Maybe the question unions should ask themselves is whether some quite reasonably paid work — for those, according to their own propaganda, who most need it — is better than no work at all.
The unions could quite feasibly play a constructive role in helping to fashion a modern and constructive solution to what not so long ago was an unforeseen consequence of the evolution of the way we work and live; it doesn’t have to rip anyone off, but it has to ensure the jobs they so viciously claim to safeguard are actually affordable to businesses to provide in the first place.
And that’s another thing — businesses are not charities. They exist to turn a profit. There is no entitlement to a job any more than there is an indissoluble obligation on the entrepreneur to remain in business to provide one. There may be competing and sometimes conflicting forces at work in the relationship between labour and capital, but the end destination of total intransigence* on the part of one side of that equation is the collapse of the relationship altogether.
Cash has her work cut out, and it is to be hoped she won’t flinch as the Abbott government did the instant Labor and the unions signalled they would block any change whatsoever in the Senate that involved fixing the outdated regime of penalty rates.
It was an abject and pathetic surrender. But then again, the Left in this country is so hostile to any outcome other than its own collective arse in the seat of power — for power’s sake alone — that meaningful reform on an economy-wide basis has, on the face of it, become virtually impossible.
The Employment minister will need to channel every fibre of the Thatcher spirit if she is to prevail, but for the sake of sustainable employment outcomes and to the long-term advantage of those who depend on them, it is critical that she does.
*…and by intransigence (or moves to avoid it) I don’t mean half-arsed “solutions” like the unions made — involving people working 14 minutes extra per week — to try to save the inefficient car manufacturing industry that was simply a black hole for the unions to suck government subsidies into through successively greedier “enterprise” agreements: and the fact such a disclaimer needs to be made at all in the context of any discussion around labour market flexibility merely illustrates just how intellectually bankrupt and cavalier the union movement really is about “workers’ rights” in Australia today.