Families close for business when shops open longer
According to Penbo, the retail union’s anachronistic attachment to Catholic values - keep the Lord’s day holy and all that - spells trouble for the retail industry.
As a card-carrying Catholic, and a former member of (and organiser for) the shop assistants’ union, I thought it might be fair to lob a few thoughts into the mix by way of retort.
As it happens, my mum and sister run a bookshop in Sydney’s CBD (www.portico.com.au), and a mighty fine one at that, so I am no stranger to the challenges faced by retailers in the current market.
I should stress, however, that the opinions expressed here are my own, and are not in any way representative of the SDA, my current employer, or my book-selling family members.
While Penbo may lament the fact that retail hours in Adelaide don’t match the whims and on-demand expectations of the modern shopper, the flip side is that retail employees have lives too. The expectation that shops will be open whenever I, the almighty consumer, want them to be open obviously requires that those shops be sufficiently staffed.
The question is, what kind of working hours can we reasonably expect retail workers to work?
At present, the General Retail Industry Award says that retail workers can be expected to work for normal rates of pay anytime between 7am and 9pm, Monday to Saturday. That’s hardly a stifling span of hours.
Retail workers can also be rostered on Sundays, although employers have to pay employees double-time for the trouble.
Perhaps it’s the Sunday penalty rate that leads Penbo to frame the current system as some kind of Catholic anachronism. If immigrant shopkeepers can stay open all hours, then why can’t home-grown retailers do the same? Why should hard-working small businesses be beholden to overbearing and stifling regulatory standards?
After all, aren’t there loads of godless teenagers and students and the like who actually want to work Sundays?
Well yes, there are plenty of youngsters who would work Sundays for peanuts. But that’s not really the point. Abolishing Sunday penalty rates would mean that any worker in the largest employment sector in the nation could be expected to work Sundays for no extra pay. Sunday becomes just like any other day. The standard is lowered.
That may be fine for teenagers and students, but the retail industry employs more than just teenagers and students. In fact across Australia, less than 35 per cent of retail employees are under the age of 25. By contrast, almost 53 per cent of Australian retail workers are aged between 25 and 54. And the majority of those are women.
If you think about what might be going on in the lives of that 25-to-54 year-old demographic, you’re thinking kids in school, mortgages, bills, school-fees, children’s weekend sporting commitments, and so on.
It’s a time of life when weekends are important. While the kids are at school Monday to Friday, mum and dad can both be at work, but on the weekends it’s a different story. In an industry where employees have traditionally had precious little bargaining power, if mums and dads in the retail industry can be expected to work Sundays, then it’s bye-bye weekend family time.
In my time as a union rep in the retail industry, an important element of my job was to help working mums haggle for reasonable working hours. For an employee with kids in school, a managerial directive that the employee work Saturdays, or evenings, could throw family life into disarray.
On the other hand, the prospect of losing a shift altogether could be the difference between making a mortgage payment or not.
Deep down, I don’t think the lowering of working standards in the retail industry is something that most Australians really want, even if we do get miffed about shops not being open when we want them to be.
It’s not about hanging on to old fashioned religious mores. It’s about hanging on to the precious little family time that hasn’t yet been made to conform to the dictates of the all-powerful economy.
Of course, all that is just pie-in-the-sky idealism if it means Australian retailers can’t be competitive in vying for the consumer dollar.
But consumers need to be aware that by adopting a cheapest-and-most-convenient-at-all-costs mentality in deploying their hard-earned, they are pressuring employers to make working conditions for the retail industry’s more than 1.5 million employees worse, not better.
It’s something that bears pondering next time you go e-bargain hunting.
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