As expected the federal government has now directed the Productivity Commission to undertake a review of Australian workplace relations laws and to make recommendations for change to government by November 2015.
As part of this process the Commission has called for written submissions. The submissions, including by the ANMF, are available to read at www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/current/workplace-relations/submissions
Also as expected the employers and their representatives are using the review to again call for further deregulation of penalty rates and deregulation of the minimum wage. And in this context deregulation definitely means a reduction! In regard to penalty rates the broad thrust of the employer’s argument is, in the global economy of the 21st century, weekends, public holidays and shift work are no different to nine to five Monday to Friday and employers shouldn’t be required to pay penalties or loadings.
In an attempt to highlight this issue, over the Easter period the peak national employer body (ACCI) called on restaurants and shops who closed over the holidays to put signs in their windows saying “it’s because penalty rates are too high”. In support of their campaign ACCI pointed to the fact that times had changed as now most people did not attend church during the Easter period as they did 50 years ago. So in the view of the ACCI, and their members supporting the campaign, if you’re not at church you should be at work without penalties or loadings.
While the campaign backfired, as plenty of businesses stayed open and did a roaring trade, it is interesting to look at the employers’ rationale which, when you strip it back, is basically a flagrant push to remove all obstacles to an employer requiring an employee to work at any time. And in pursuing this outcome employers appear to place no credence whatsoever on the importance to employees of spending leisure time with families and communities.
While they may be a relatively blunt instrument, penalties and shift loadings do play an important role in deterring employers from requiring employees to work long and unsociable hours. They help ensure reasonable working hour’s standards are maintained. Penalty and shift payments are also a critical component of an employees’ wages and often the difference between a fair wage and a low wage. Analysis undertaken by the ANMF shows that a small reduction of current penalties and loadings for nurses and midwives working in the acute sector would mean a loss of hundreds of dollars each week. Similarly an Assistant in Nursing in the aged care sector could lose up to $250 each week if current penalties and loadings were removed. A detailed analysis of the financial impact of these changes is available in the ANMF submission.
Minimum wages also play an important role in Australian society. The minimum wage, which is enshrined in law in Australia, is specifically intended to address the inherent imbalance in power between employers and low wage workers that can push wages down to poverty levels. A minimum wage helps ensure that the weakest in our workforce (typically unskilled, part time, female workers often referred to as the working poor) are not forced into poverty.
Many employers hate the legislated minimum wage and are now campaigning for its complete removal. They crave for the minimum wage system of the United States which has not moved for over 10 years and where many employees are forced to work two jobs just to make ends meet.
As the table below shows Australia compares favourably to other OECD countries in minimum wage levels. It is part of our fabric and helps ensure all workers receive a reasonable minima. The importance of the minimum wage for nurses and midwives cannot be underestimated. The maintenance and steady increase in the minimum wage has been the driver of increases in nursing and midwifery wages.
The minimum wage is the principal mechanism by which the wages and conditions of nurses and midwives are determined. As the minimum wage moves consequent wage adjustments for nursing and midwifery skills, qualifications and experience, either through the award or agreements, also occur. This is an important issue which is often overlooked when debating the future of minimum wages.
It is ironic that whenever there is a debate about employee’s entitlements to wages, working hours or penalties, those calling loudest for change are often those furthest away from minimum wages and shift work. They are typically well heeled, highly paid male executives who are not required to work unsociable hours, at weekends or at night. Quite frankly they would have little understanding of the impact of working rotating shifts and struggling to make ends meet. For the ANMF the maintenance of penalties and a fair minimum wage are articles of faith. We will be knocking on politicians doors and running campaigns at a national, state and territory level all the way to the 2016 federal election to ensure these vital protections are retained. We invite all nurses and midwives to join us.
Senior Federal Professional Officer