We have a proud history of egalitarianism: let's protect our worker's rights (29/10/2012)

14 January 2013

hospitality_workers.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (12:36): I would like to start by commending the member for La Trobe for bringing this important matter to the House. I sat and listened with interest to the member for Hasluck in his contribution to this debate and, if he speaks on behalf of the entire coalition, I have to say that I welcome their sudden affection for the independence of tribunals and courts in general and for the independence of Fair Work Australia in particular. I know that there are at least two members of this House who would welcome that affection for the independence of those courts and tribunals.

As the motion states, penalty rates are compensation paid to employees for working outside normal day and weekly hours. The framework of penalty rates reflects the longstanding idea that not all hours of the day and not all days of the week are the same. Despite the commercialised nature of the world that we live in, some parts of the week are still largely regarded as the preserve of family, and I have to say that I hope that that remains the same. It is good for parents to have time with their children outside the traditional working week, when the pace of life is less hurried, even if it is to do nothing more than to take their kids to a game of sport or to spend time in the backyard with their families. For those who do need to work during this time, it is right that they have an additional payment for the sacrifice to be at work when others are at rest or at play.

Different rates of pay are a fact not just of workplaces but of businesses in general. Many sectors, including airlines, tourism operators, cinemas, electricity companies and taxi companies, to name just a few, feature different pricing arrangements depending on the time of day or the season. Indeed, they have spawned a whole language, with terms such as shoulder rates, peak season, off-season, low time and matinee rates. So to pick on workers and say that, somehow, workers' rates should be treated differently from all those others, I say, is simply unfair.

We have heard much from those on the other side of the House, much wailing from the coalition, on the cost-of-living issues. These are crocodile tears indeed. The hypocrisy of those opposite when it comes to cost-of-living issues is nothing short of astonishing. They argue for flexibility, which we know from our bitter experience during the Work Choices years is simply code for reducing wages. The only cost-of-living issues they seem to care about are those of the big end of town. On this side of the House, we are concerned about those who draw their living from ordinary toil and those who earn penalty rates as a part of their essential take-home pay.

I want to say something about the catering and restaurant industry, an important sector within our economy and indeed within my electorate. I know it is a contentious issue, particularly in the hospitality and business sector, and there is a campaign being waged against penalty rates. It is indeed highly political. Managing staff in these areas can be difficult, and I know that businesses in this sector are struggling from time to time, particularly as there are downturns in the economy.

I have to say that not everyone within the industry accepts the position that has been taken on by the association. I recently received a letter from a constituent that confirms that he takes a different point of view. My constituent says:

"I am appalled at this campaign as I know the hospitality business and in fact all businesses thrive on points of difference, be that service, location, atmosphere et cetera. We are advised by many business gurus that we should not sell our wares and services based on price alone. I can only see that ridding workers' pay packets of weekend penalty rates puts more money in the pockets of the business owner. Then if we continue to compete on price we are no better off in terms of market share."

He goes on to make many observations about the fact that reducing workers' wages reduces the income people have to spend in his establishment.

Australia has a proud tradition of egalitarianism. That tradition is threatened by the rising gap between the richest and poorest in this country, as recent reports by non-government organisations have testified to. In 1994-95 households on the top 10 per cent earned an average of 3.78 times more than the bottom 10 per cent but the latest survey in 2009-10 shows that this has grown to 4.21 times. We in this House should be doing everything we can to ensure we are reducing the gap between the top and the bottom, not increasing it. Penalty rates for most workers who earn them are a critical part of their take-home pay. Once again I commend the member for La Trobe for bringing this matter before the House. There is no conflict between us debating this here and having it independently arbitrated somewhere else.