Who stole your weekend?

Commentators are spruiking the idea of an IR 'assault' on our weekends but the reality is Australia's productivity is a disaster and it's a good thing workers, when properly compensated, are willing to be flexible.

I am at work today, on Good Friday, along with hundreds of thousands of other Australians.

I'm working on putting together what you'll read as you sip coffee and break chocolate eggs, while others are making food for you, selling you milk, driving you and your family to the beach, ripping your movie ticket, putting out your housefire or re-starting your heart.

What I am not doing, to be very clear, is being the puppet of big bad business and the capitalist wolves out to secretly destroy 'the weekend' and reduce my quality of life.

I didn't even know that was a possibility, until Ross Gittins told me that was happening in an Op Ed published on Wednesday in Fairfax's Business Daily.

"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,” he begins, and so on and so forth about the "assault” on community-wide days off, the evils of Howard's Work Choices, all the way down to: "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.”

I hope I'm not alone in agreeing with Gittins' broad position that employees should be compensated fairly for working non-standard hours, while also finding the shrill union-playbook horror with which he argues this rather laughable.

And for brevity's sake "business people, economists and politicians” could probably be shortened to 'BEPs' or even just 'the Man'.

But I’d argue the reason why there have been several 'assaults' on community-wide days off is because it's a vast and unnecessary pain to have to buy enough milk or petrol to last five days over Easter. And because the milk and petrol folks price gouge like crazy the day beforehand. Having grown up in the heavily regulated (and self-regulated) retail environment of Western Australia – where my bank opened late specially one day a week all the way until 5pm – I can personally see the value of the banks' latest push to find an economic way to stay open on weekends.

One person who does seem to have a problem with it though is Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten.

"I just don't accept the view which says productivity is gained by the CEO and the company making more profits and the employee having their pay cut,” he said this week after ANZ, Westpac and the Commonwealth Bank, along with GE Capital Finance, put a joint award review application into Fair Work Australia for more flexibility in rostering workers, including paying weekday wages for weekend work. They claimed they were 'in substance' the same as telcos or call centres, and that they only wanted 'flexible and efficient modern work practices in a way that has proper regard to the considerations of productivity and employment costs'”.

"One CEO's flexibility can be another bank worker's loss of income,” Shorten said.

In the form of a very popular graph, What Shorten is saying looks like this:


Of course the Finance Sector Union weighed in and called the banks’ request things like "outrageous” and "lazy”, names not usually reserved for the 1 per cent.

But if we look a little closer into this debate, it seems that Shorten. the FSU and pretty much everyone except for Ross Gittins, aren't really arguing about modern big-city society taking our weekends away, they're simply opening up a much-needed dialogue about productivity and fairness.

In the form of a less popular graph, this is why business is fighting so hard at the moment over this issue:

(Source: Grattan Institute, Australia's Productivity Challenge, Eslake & Walsh)

The problem for workers is they feel ripped off, and disempowered, while the problem for the BEPs is that productivity in this country is a disaster. And productivity, along with population growth, are key drivers of GDP growth. And when that falls, that becomes seriously bad news for the workers again.

The four financial institutions proposing the award changes all already open on Saturdays and Sundays. Retail has been deregulated on most of the eastern seaboard for decades to the point that when NSW announced last week it would open up Boxing Day trading in the state, the Australian National Retailer's Association criticised the O'Farrell government for not freeing up Easter Sunday as well.

As ANRA chief executive Margy Osmond points out: "The Productivity Commission Inquiry into the retail sector last year identified trading hours as a key issue for the sector and said it should be deregulated across the country.

"Deregulation not only helps retailers compete with online traders, but families and working people who are constrained by time and at minimum 9-5 jobs five days a week.”

So the problem is not working 'unsociable' hours, it's a question of why, and for what reward? In the same way people cry foul when the banks raise rates out of cycle – not because they don't understand that wholesale funding costs have increased but because they never see out-of-cycle cuts of the same magnitude when funding is cheap – they are willing to make sacrifices to improve productivity and profits only when they think at least some of that will come back to them.

So why am I working on Good Friday? (Other than to save the nation’s GDP of course.)

Firstly, I, along with an ever-growing number of the younger generations, am not religious, making this public holiday about as sacrosanct as the Queen's Birthday we celebrate on different days in different states, none of which actually mark our Queen's birth.

Secondly, I'm being compensated for it (in my case with extra annual leave), and such compensation should always exist. It's a free market – retailers or restaurants can always surcharge in order to pay staff more, and if customers aren't willing to pay that, then there's no business case to be open.

Thirdly, it's my choice. And the business' choice. Under Fair Work, employers and employees have wriggle-room on public holidays – ie: if it's reasonable for your particular business to need to be open at such times, and this is conveyed in advance with appropriate compensation, then it's no problem. And an employee refusing to work must also have reasonable grounds.

Finally, it's because this is the world we live in and love. One where deregulation and the internet have ruptured our sense of consumerism, along with our sense of time. I can shop for shoes from America at 3am, I can buy a pillow from Coles at midnight. It's not about raising our material standard of living at the expense of our private lives as Ross Gittins argues. It's about changing our material manner of living for the broadening and betterment of our private lives.

In the words of a book most managers in this country own a copy of, but probably haven't read, The Art of War: "When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided amongst your men.”

Businesses should learn that employees are understanding of the need for productivity gains and for sacrifices – including working weekends and public holidays – but only so long as these gains are correspondingly returned to them. Meanwhile unions and their sympathisers should learn that workers are not ignorant agency-devoid puppies to be defended from the harsh gears of the machine. We are perfectly capable of weighing benefits, and a little more trust in the power of the individual to decide whether or not material gains are getting in the way of our personal lives might not be such a bad thing.


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