The true penalty of working Sundays

Reading Time: 5 minutes

For the better part of a year there has been a national debate underway about reducing Sunday penalty rates.

In December, a report by the Productivity Commission, a Government advisory body, was tabled in Parliament.For the better part of a year there has been a national debate underway about reducing Sunday penalty rates.

In December, a report by the Productivity Commission, a Government advisory body, was tabled in Parliament.The commission was asked to examine all facets of the workplace relations system.

Among its long list of recommendations and findings, it argued for the reduction of Sunday penalty rates to the level of Saturday rates for those in the retail and hospitality sectors.

The issue is now before the Fair Work Commission which,  in the coming months, will make the final decision as part of its penalty rates case. The Productivity Commission put forward a range of arguments supporting reduced Sunday rates. One key argument is that it will benefit the economy as more jobs will be created because of decreased wage pressure on business.

A reduced Sunday rate in these sectors, the report argued, will also more correctly reflect our modern 24/7 economy which demands we be able to shop and eat out on Sundays.

Sunday was once considered sacrosanct from work - a legacy of Christianity. The drive to end penalty rates for those who must work on Sundays ends common acceptance of the idea that one day in the week should be reserved for family and rest.
Sunday was once considered sacrosanct from work – a legacy of Christianity. The drive to end penalty rates for those who must work on Sundays ends common acceptance of the idea that one day in the week should be reserved for family and rest.

Another key argument, and one that has gained a lot of attention, is one that largely boils down to the idea that Sundays are no longer ‘special’.This change, it is argued, will better align with our values which no longer hold Sunday as a day set aside for worship, as evidenced in the declining numbers of Australians attending religious services.

From the other side of the fence there has been vocal opposition to the Commission’s claims. A range of community and union organisations have come together in the ‘Save Our Weekend’ campaign. Unions, United Voice and Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association are two of major stakeholders and leaders in the campaign.

They have argued that there is no certainty that business will reinvest extra profits into job creation; they may just be absorbed to the benefit of shareholders and owners.

They also argue that a decrease in wages in two of the largest sectors in the country will actually negatively affect business by reducing consumers’ spending power.

Drawing on a McKell Institute report, the group suggests that rural communities will be disproportionately hurt as retail and hospitality workers are overrepresented in these communities and any wage decrease would have a devastating flow-on effect to local business.

The unions and other community organisations also contend that only focusing on this group of workers, a group already generally at the bottom-end of the pay scale, will effectively create an underclass of working poor. Lastly, they argue that Sunday does remain a special day – the vast majority of Australians spend time together with families, friends or community groups, we continue to celebrate major cultural and sporting events, like footy grandfinals, on Sundays and many people do still continue to worship. As Catholics, we may ask why this should matter to us, especially if we don’t work in these sectors ourselves. Yet the Church has long been vocal about the right place of work in our lives.

From Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour) to the vast body of Australian Catholic bishops’ statements and pastoral letters on the issue, the Church has made it clear that what happens in our working lives matters to God, indeed a good working life is a good intended for us by God.Work is a way we live out our dignity as well as participate in and glorify Creation.

The Church teaches that the economy must be always at the service of human beings and never the other way around.It teaches that we have a right to decent, just and dignifying work as well as a responsibility to do that work honestly and fairly. A key element of this is that we ought to be compensated for work with a living wage – a wage that allows individuals and families to flourish.

All work, wages and production should be oriented in this direction.

These suggested cuts are not so oriented. If these cuts go ahead the many families, older people and young people who rely on their penalty rates to make ends meet would be thrown into poverty or be forced to work longer hours to make up the shortfall.

Yet this is more than enforced economic hardship, it is also an encroachment on and inherent devaluing of the importance of our time – time to be with families, time for adequate rest, time to participate in our communities and time to be with friends.

The effect of having to work more hours, juggle more shifts in the one family, or live on less will see a deeper erosion of our communities and increased pressure on families and marriages, likely leading to more family breakdown.

The cuts also beg the question: why should some of our poorest and already time-stressed bear the burden of our desire to shop or eat at a cafe on the weekend? Aside from the Church having a long history of standing in solidarity with workers and advocating for fair and dignified pay and conditions, it also has a vested interest in protecting the Sabbath as a day for worship and rest.

This should not be a ‘privilege’ afforded to only some of us. Whether we are small or large in number on Sundays, as Christians we have an obligation to keep holy the Sabbath and not to have it turned into a day when we either work or are expected to consume.

Although the commission is right to say that there has been a decline in religious observance on Sundays, the Australian community more broadly still largely sees Sunday as a special day – a day different to the weekdays or Saturday.

Sundays remain a day for us all, in whatever ways are authentic for each of us, to honour and enjoy those parts of being human that lie beyond labouring.

If some of us are to work on this day we ought to be fairly compensated for our time and in that compensation will lay the message that our time is precious and ought to be protected from ever-increasing economic interests that would see us all diminished.

What you can do

• Raise your voice – 80 per cent of Australians aren’t in favour of cuts yet many don’t know it is being debated, so mainly business groups that are being heard. Share your concerns with friends, family and parish community. Who in your parish works in these sectors? Start a conversation.

• The Fair Work Commission is inviting people to make submissions at protectpenaltyrates.org.au

• Read more and sign the petition at saveourweekend.org.au 

• Write to your local Federal MP.

• Contact the Justice and Peace Office, which  is bringing a Catholic voice to the Save Our Weekend campaign, to get involved: Phone 02) 9307 8465, visit justiceandpeace.org.au or email [email protected]