Who Really Bears The Penalty In The Penalty Rates Decision?

If there are two things you can rely on in a wage case it is that there will always be two diametrically opposed points of view and that the government will do an appalling job at creating the right context for the outcome. Right now, retail and hospitality employers look really bad in the eyes of the labour pool. Not a good look for an industry with super high staff churn and difficulty in recruiting for non-traditional hours.

While demand is moving globally to 24/7/365 trading and shoppers and patrons want convenience, the case for equitable recompense is not simple. Yes you can write terms of employment that require flexible rosters. Yes you can smooth compensation so that non-traditional hours are more evenly levied. But at the end of the day, you have to be able to attract the staff to fill the hours to generate the revenue.

The history of penalty rates dates back to a time when many in society didn’t want trading on Sundays or after office hours and the dynamics of households were single income. That world ended decades ago and convenience now comes down to very individual criteria. The case for the classing of differential hours being seen as a ‘penalty’ on a staff motivational level is something that needs to be changed.

The retail and hospitality industries need to sell the idea of the flexibility of hours worked as an advantage of employment not a disadvantage. That is the major task – not the penalty rates. The reality is that retail and hospitality will have to meet the market rates in order to attract the talent anyway. So an award is fine in theory but all in does in practice is set the floor rate not the market rate.

In making the change in base rates more palatable the industry will need to smooth so that the impact is not too onerous for employees. The change in attitude may be long overdue but the impost should not be sudden and onerous on the party that is most vulnerable. If it is, it runs the risk of causing long-term damage on the reputation of retail and hospitality as employers of choice.

Many of us have been fighting for a long time to get society as a whole to recognise how important retail and hospitality are as employers – after all almost half the working adult population of the country have at some point worked in the category either as casuals or permanents – and we increasingly offer a great career choice. I even wrote a book about it.

You can accelerate into a higher paying job in retail management with on the job training far more efficiently and with greater earning power earlier in retail than the law. But nobody sells it hard enough. We who work in these industries know there is no better career, no more enjoyable form of commerce than retail and hospitality. They are alive, full of instant response and very rewarding on a number of levels.

The penalty in the penalty rates decision at the moment is landing on an industry that is not doing a good enough job creating a perception of the powerful and positive role it plays in the Australian economy. I’m sorry to say this but, yet again, it will all come down to us as individuals. Handle the communication and the implementation of this decision with care. The knock on impact will affect us all.