Penalty rate cuts a further blow to Sunday

Reducing Sunday rates will diminish social and sacred importance of a common day of rest, writes the Revd Dr Gordon Preece

By Gordon Preece

April 12 2017Why should Churches be involved in matters of industrial relations, working hours and penalty rates? While we generally do not take definitive stances on empirical specifics of such issues we do advocate biblical and ethical principles for the common good and common time. Just as the abandonment of the commons or common space in English society had devastating effects on the poor and frayed the social fabric so will the reduction of penalty rates as a symptom of the secular surrender of common, shared time. This has major pastoral implications for Anglican parishes’ and agencies’ work with people penalised by lost penalty rates.

First, this is not only a political issue but also a civil society issue, where society’s mediating institutions stand between isolated individuals and the corporatist State and allied employer groups. We are parts of a whole, not just individual workers and consumers in a 24/7 market society. We are parts of families, friendship networks, sporting, community and worshipping groups.

Secondly, Sunday rates are a big part of low-paid workers’ incomes. Penalty rates compensate low-paid workers for lost family, communal and religious celebrations. Families working multiple jobs, people without permanent jobs working unsociable hours, students paying their way, all depend on penalty rates. Increasingly such casual, precarious work is permanent. While penalty rates incentivise some to work weekends, many low-paid workers do not choose work-times – they are rostered at employers’ discretion.

For approximately 4.6 million Australians, extra cash is not a luxury but a necessity for survival in an increasingly unequal society. Despite waves of record profits, wage increases are mere ripples, invisible, or negative. Note the irony of the simultaneous announcement of corporate tax cuts with penalty rate cuts. Some businesses arguing that more people will be employed at lower rates may seem likely on the micro-level but is illogical on the macro-economic level. Reduced wages leads to less demand and growth. Many employers will cut wages and increase profits. Workers will work extra hours to make up lost income, and compete with others for it. The business case for the change has not been made (Ross Gittins, “Don’t be sure lower penalties mean more jobs”, Sydney Morning Herald, 10/8/15).

Thirdly, the principle behind penalty rates is that all days and times are not homogenous, despite the misleading cliché of a 24/7 economy. Relationally, leisure times are the true riches. Sundays are still socially special despite secularisation. More than 60% of Australians ticked “Christian” on Census day 2011. Sunday as a rest-day is not just an antique Christian curiosity, as the Productivity Commission claimed in order to equalise Saturday and Sunday rates. Sunday is still the best day for shared celebration. Witness Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days, Fun runs, the Australian Open tennis final etc.

The Sabbath, or principle of one day in seven rest, “was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It is for human flourishing. The Sabbath is a day of rest first, ecologically built into creation, for all creatures (Ex 20:8-11), and worship second, on Sunday as the day of resurrection and new creation. We are finite and frail, needing rest, in alternating rhythm with work. The French and Russian Revolutionaries replaced Sunday with a day off every ten days but gave up on their utopian project.

Rest is not just physical recovery, but relational restoration and shared celebration. Rest is best when regular and relational. If the family, social, ecological and health costs of not keeping Sunday special were counted, not swept under the carpet or externalised, they would far outweigh penalty rate costs to businesses opening Sundays (http://www.keepsundayspecial.org.uk/evidence/).

John Howard’s reference to bar-b-q stoppers or controversial topics ignored the greater and graver bar-b-q stopper that we are becoming: The Land of the Lost, not the long weekend. It’s difficult enough now coordinating diaries to have a barbie together. It will be near impossible for many if Sunday loses its specialness through a price reduction signalling its diminishing value.

Fourthly, many poignant stories tell of people who work Sundays to put food on the table but miss sitting at the table or family events. They miss building shared memories together. Further, as Professor Greg Patmore shows, the education system reflects the standard working week and weekends to preserve weekend family time.

Fifth and finally, there are threats to freedom of religion and worship for both Christians regarding Sundays, and other religions’ holy days if respect for “sacred days” is lost. National Christian Life Survey (NCLS) Occasional Paper 23 shows that 15% of Australians attend church at least monthly (2011). This is twice the number (3.495 million, McCrindle Research) of attendees per month during the football season of all codes (1.684 million). This is part of being a genuinely deep pluralist and secular society, not a monotone market or secularist society.

Already, despite legislation, some find it hard to worship regularly. Once Sunday is priced as just another day, it will become harder to justify religious exemptions at all. Compare a United Voice member who worked Sundays for a decade, since her husband’s accident that cost them their house. She’s nominally Catholic and likes sharing mass occasionally with her mum and sister, but can’t. The rich barrister for employer groups arrogantly argued she could attend the Cathedral 7am mass and travel 20 minutes to her 8am shift. But her mother and sister didn’t attend the Cathedral.

This economically reductionist view of interchangeable consumer time misses the shared relational and religious significance of a special, shared social day, where those who miss out are compensated. Sunday is not just a day for the devout to do mass but for the masses left out if its importance is discounted. If all days are days for doing deals (cf. Isa 58), we’ll sell our souls, be no longer whole, losing the common good along with common time.

This is an updated version by the Revd Dr Gordon Preece, Interim Director of RASP (www.centrerasp.org - University of Divinity Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy), of his Melbourne Anglican Social Responsibilities Committee Submission to the Fair Work Commission in late 2015. He is chair of the Committee.