Thursday, 5 March 2015
Yesterday, along with thousands of Australian workers and community members, I attended the March 4 rally, here in Canberra. I went to the rally to support Australian workers and to be in solidarity with my union comrades. One of the key features of these rallies that were being held across the country was the Abbott government's attack on penalty rates. There are up to 4.5 million Australians and their families who depend on penalty rates to make ends meet, and they have very good reason to be worried.
Penalty rates have been under threat from the Abbott government since its election. If penalty rates are safe, why then give the Productivity Commission carte blanche to investigate the entire workplace relations framework. So sensitive is Minister Abetz to the whole issue of penalty rates that we had the most bizarre situation in Senate estimates last week with the minister, supported by his bullyboy backbenchers, trying to get me to show him where the Productivity Commission inquiry said the word 'penalty'. Of course, what we know of the minister and, indeed, the whole Abbott government is that they do not let truth get in the way of a good story, and they change their stories to match the circumstances.
The Productivity Commission inquiry is called Workplace Relations Framework. It implies that penalty rates, along with the minimum wage and other conditions of employment, will be examined, because, by any reckoning, they are in 'the framework'. Any number of the dot points in the Productivity Commission's terms of reference go to the examination of penalty rates. We now have the first issues paper, and at 1.4, under 'What might need to change?', there is a dot point which states:
imposes high penalty rates for work outside the five day working cycle …
So, to correct the minister, there in the document is the word 'penalty'. Certainly, reducing or abolishing penalty rates has been on the minds of a number of employer associations. John Hart, from Restaurant & Catering Australia, has been harping on about penalty rates. He claims they are destroying the hospitality business, and he has been saying that for quite some time. But who is John Hart? Well, according to the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 May last year, he is Mr Hockey's man. He is the chair of Mr Hockey's North Sydney Forum. The North Sydney Forum provides exclusive access to Mr Hockey in return for donations in the form of annual membership fees of up to $22,000. Mr Hockey, the forum and the New South Wales Liberals refuse to disclose the names of its members.
A New Year's Eve 2010 fundraiser for disgraced former New South Wales police minister, Mike Gallacher, was held at Doyle's restaurant at Circular Quay. Mr Deputy President, you may not be familiar with Doyle's, but it is one of the foremost restaurants in Sydney. The invite stated very clearly that Restaurant & Catering Australia are 'holding the event'. So there is a clear political relationship between Mr Hart and Mr Hockey. Mr Hockey, of course, is the author of the Productivity Commission's terms of reference—terms of reference which will examine penalty rates. Of course, penalty rates are a particular bugbear of Mr Hart's—a cosy relationship, indeed.
The Australian Hotels Association is also seeking unspecified reductions in penalty rates. A massive owner of these hotels is Woolworths. Woolworths like to sponsor political events and donate items for auction, as they did at the infamous function where Alan Jones made that disgraceful reference to our former Prime Minister Julia Gillard's father. Woolworths is one of the largest owners of poker machines in Australia—an industry that relies on problem gambling and the disposable income that penalty rates provide. Coincidentally, the former New South Wales chief of the Australian Hotels Association was none other than Paul Nicolaou, who also headed the Millennium Forum—the Liberal Party's fundraising arm. ICAC has alleged that more than $1 million in illegal donations were made to Liberal MPs through 'slush funds' linked to former minister Chris Hartcher and to former chief fundraiser Paul Nicolaou. ICAC also alleges that up to $700,000 in illegal donations were made to an organisation linked to Mr Nicolaou called the Free Enterprise Foundation, which then funnelled the money through to the Liberal Party—another cosy relationship.
Australia's biggest brickmaker, Australian Stock Exchange-listed Brickworks, wants its workers to start at 4 am, instead of the usual 6 am, as they do at present. Brickworks wants that work to start without penalties and, in addition to that, Brickworks wants to abolish weekend penalty rates. As we know, Brickworks featured prominently in the Liberal Party fundraising scandal in New South Wales last year over its donations to the party—another cosy relationship.
Another employer named as making a submission against struggling workers' penalty rates is Clubs Australia. Things cannot be that tough for Clubs Australia, as it managed to find $20 million to run a lengthy campaign against changes to laws regarding poker machines. This campaign was run against the Labor Party and saw sitting Labor MPs attacked in personal campaigns in pubs and clubs in their own electorate. Then came celebrity chef Luke Mangan's clanger: complaining at paying penalty rates to staff at his $80 million restaurant empire.
All of this comes at a time when our ABS stats tell us a completely different story. They tell us that turnover in the hospitality industry is increasing year on year, and that employment in the hospitality industry continues to rise. According to the most recent figures in the ABS Household Expenditure Survey, households spend around 25 per cent of their weekly food bill on eating out. That is up from 22 per cent in 1998-1999.
Then, of course, there are the bizarre comments by the Prime Minister, Mr Abbott—I do not know why we are surprised, because we should be used to his bizarre and chaotic comments by now. He said quite recently:
If you don't want to work on a weekend, fair enough, don't work on a weekend…
But what does the voting public think about penalty rates ? We know what the rich and politically linked m ates of the Liberal Party think. An Essential poll conducted just a month ago found there was 81 per cent support for penalty rates— a level t hat has remained unchanged for two years . Again, a clearly out-of-touch, chaotic PM believes that workers do not need to work weekends . But, of course, workers do not necessarily want to work weekends. They do so to make ends meet . The Prime Minister completely fails to understand that our communities would no t function without the essential services which operate around the clock , and the wor kers who provide that workforce in aged care, hospitals, emergency services, disability services, cleaning, security, hospitality, airports — and the list goes on and on.
Penalty rate workers mi ss out on a lot of family time— children's events, weddings, sporting events, Christmas, New Year, Easter and other public holidays. Australians take their leisure time seriously , and most of our leisure activities and family time takes place on weekends or at time s when night shift workers are sleeping . O f course penalty rates cannot and do not compensate for these sacrifices, but penalty rates are a si gnificant part of take-home pay. P enalt y rates represent around 30 per cent of the total wage of penalty rate workers.
At the Perth rally yesterday we heard from Jessie, a young hospitality worker. She said: 'Where to begin? My penalty rates mean everything to me. I know it sounds clichéd, but it is true: without penalty rates I would lose over 30 per cent of my pay cheque. Without penalty rates I will not have a job in hospitality, because it will not pay me enough.' These are the voices that governments should hear, not the voices of their rich and politically connected mates.