In developments which have employer groups and industry peak bodies looking on with enthusiasm, and hospitality, retail and healthcare workers and their unions looking on with concern, penalty rates are facing an uncertain future. Employment Minister Eric Abetz maintains that industrial relations reform is off the table until at least the next federal election. But why do his reassurances ring hollow? Because the Productivity Commission’s review of IR legislation, currently underway, is reported to be the most sweeping in a generation. And also because of Tony Abbott’s comments on national radio: “If you don’t want to work on a weekend, fair enough, don’t work on a weekend. But if you do want to work on a weekend, and lots of people, particularly students, particularly young people, want to work on a weekend, you want the places to be open to provide jobs”.
“I didn’t start working weekends in hospitality because I longed for the prune-like hands I now have” writes former ‘dishpig’ turned comedian Felicity Ward. “It wasn’t an elaborate plan to miss out on crucial moments I will never get back with family and friends. I never fantasised about teenage lower-back pain or the irremovable stench of deep fryer from my clothes and skin. I worked weekends because it was the only time I could, and I needed the money”.
The issue of penalty rates cuts right to the heart of cultural narratives around the importance of the weekend. A central premise of the capitalist wage relation is that though we might be subject to the prerogatives of our employer on specific days of the week, the ‘weekend’ is the time for transforming our homes and gardens into something we can be proud of: the weekend is when we cultivate our little slice of the Australian dream. I believed, perhaps mistakenly, that this was a script Tony Abbott might have some interest in supporting, that it was a good fit for the conservative, ‘family values’ he represents. On the contrary, he is effectively advocating for a Saturday or a Sunday to be treated like any other day.
In a rather swift turnaround from only a few decades ago, when it was illegal for retailers to trade on a Sunday, we are now exhorted to do our duty as consumers on the weekend, to pour our hard-earned cash back into the economy. However, when I asked my family and friends what the ‘weekend’ conjured in their minds, the replies were “gardening”, “cycling”, and, predictably, more mundane activities like “cleaning” – with the exception of “drinking”, these were activities that did not involve a commercial transaction. It seems that the idea of the weekend as a time for rest and recreation is one that sticks. The significance of downtime has arguably only been heightened with the drive to extract more from every worker, to blur the line between where the hours of a reasonable work week end, and overtime begins.
There’s a reason why hospitality and healthcare workers, among others, are said to work ‘unsociable hours’. It recognises that employees in specific industries are providing a special service by working at times when the rest of society is sleeping, or going out about their leisure. When it comes to night shift, though, a description more apt than ‘unsociable’ is perhaps ‘just plain unhealthy’. Adding to the body of empirical evidence in which shift work has been linked to an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes, cancer and stroke is a recent international study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. It found nurses working five or more years of night shift on a rotating roster had a 19% increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Fifteen years or more of rotating night shift was associated with a 25% increase in lung cancer mortality. It seems that a reduced life expectancy is the thanks that night shift workers get for working while the world sleeps. No amount of shift loading can compensate for the years of life lost.
When I began my career as a Registered Nurse, I became acquainted with the 7-day rotating roster. It was entirely at the discretion of my employer whether I worked the weekend or not, and I sensed the idea of the weekend as a kind of ‘sanctuary’ was somehow irrevocably lost. It is still slightly jarring, even now, to be heading off to work when everyone else appears to be observing a pause in their professional responsibilities. Try telling a nurse that a Saturday or Sunday is ‘just another day’ when her alarm is waking her at 6am to get ready for work, and her family are set to share in adventures she cannot be privy to.
Although for many years, my mother conducted a group exercise class of a Saturday morning, as I grew up, both of my parents were very much present to me on the weekend. Weekends were spent simply, and at home. We didn’t necessarily all have to be in the house at the same time, but there was a certain quality of time and space that I have come to associate with ‘family’. For me personally, the ‘weekend’ has strong associations with memories of my childhood. Although this risks sounding like some sort of horribly saccharine, suburban ideal (the prosaic reality is probably that I spent a good deal of time complaining that “I’m bored”), I believe it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that the weekend is when childhood memories are made.
And it seems that the ‘weekend as family time’ model endures. Witness the trend towards going out for breakfast. Middle-class affectation or no, it is something that Australians, particularly in the major cities, are doing in greater numbers. Saturday and Sunday are now peak trading days for many cafes. The staff attending to those families catching up over coffee and eggs are themselves real people, who must forego opportunities for family time, or perhaps for artistic or creative pursuits to wait tables for not much more than the minimum wage. Unlike Tony Abbott, when I look at this situation, I see little in the way of ‘choice’, and much in the way of ‘compromise’.
But before I invest the ‘weekend’ with meanings and potentialities that it simply doesn’t have, I should highlight that the reality is often much more mundane. For workers who must organise their lives around a full-time working week, the weekend is the time left for all those tasks like doing the washing, cleaning (let’s face it, even procreating) that grease the wheels of the capitalist economy and keep it running smoothly. And it is perhaps not uncommon for Sunday night to roll around before we have had a chance to unlock our creative potential, ponder new philosophical depths or achieve blissful relaxation.
So, while the bastions of industry attempt to dismiss penalty rates as irrelevant in the “24/7 economy”, and as standing in the way of “the flexibility that 21st century workplaces need”, we can be sure that the real beneficiaries of this flexibility will be a privileged few. We should defend our right to receive adequate compensation for working unsociable hours, and not only because it might allow us to afford a satnav for the car, the occasional brunch with friends in a café, and all the other little accoutrements that our consumer culture tells us are necessary. In many ways this is a battle for something far more important. We should push back against the discourses which conceive of human potential only in strict economic terms. We should defend that space which is all the time getting smaller, that space in which we live, think and breathe.