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Penalty rates highlight the government's attacks on workers

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 12 Oct 2015

I am very pleased to be speaking today on the Turnbull Liberal government's attack on penalty rates. This is a critical issue for our society. This week is national Anti-Poverty Week. It is a time to take stock of how we are going as the country of a fair go. You only have to look at this government's attacks on penalty rates, which have just been continued in the contribution by Senator Back, to see the challenges we face.

The poverty line is $400 a week for a single adult. A report by the Australian Council of Social Services has found that there are over 2.5 million Australians living in poverty. Penalty rates are an absolutely vital tool, preventing millions more Australians falling below this line.

Take, for example, a single woman in her 50s, who has a part-time textiles job on the minimum wage. Without penalty rates, her income hovers just above the poverty line. She is absolutely struggling to get by. Or take, for example, the young person who has moved to the city for university. With youth allowance at absolutely rock bottom, with student allowance at absolutely rock bottom, and with housing costs so high that it is a struggle to find money to pay the rent, working at a cafe on weekends and being paid penalty rates is the only way for that young person to survive. Think of the single parent who has been forced back into the workforce because they cannot survive on the parenting allowance, being able to earn penalty rates on weekends is the difference between their kids having food on the table and shoes on their feet. Being able to earn penalty rates is absolutely the difference between them having to spend all of their time working or at least having some time to spend with their family.

I ask the government, in their push to reduce penalty rates, to do some serious research. Go out there and talk to the people who are at the coalface of this issue. Ask the wait staff at those cafes and restaurants—which in fact are open on Sundays—the difference that penalty rates make to their lives. There are cafes, restaurants, businesses open on Sundays all over the country. Talk to the students who are working there serving them their coffee, and ask them what would it matter to them and how would it change their life if the penalty rates were not being paid. They would tell you that it is the difference between being able to pay the rent or being homeless. It is the difference between being able to afford to put food on the table versus being able to only eat two-minute noodles. It is the difference of having some time to study; to be able to survive working 20 hours a week instead of having to work 40 hours a week. This is the reality of what penalty rates mean.

I ask the government to do some research, to talk to the student counsellors at uni. Talk to them as they are struggling to work with students who are at risk of dropping out of their studies, who want to be able to study but know that they have got to earn an income to be able to do that. If they were not able to receive penalty rates the equation would not add up.

Penalty rates prevent these people from falling into the poverty cycle. They allow Australians to pay the rent, to stay in study and to have enough to eat. They are compensation for the impacts that they have on the rights of people at work, the time away from friends and family, the disadvantage of not being able to access nine to five services and the stress that night shift puts on people. These are real disadvantages and penalty rates account for this. Yet this government—the party of Work Choices—wants to destroy this safety net. We have a Prime Minister talking of the seven-day economy. This is a myth. It is pure fiction rolled out by people who invariably have the benefit of more normal hours. We all know we are in a seven-day economy when this parliament regularly sits on weekends. A seven-day economy does not mean a seven-day working week. The important parts of the weekend should be preserved. And if you have to work on weekends, you should be paid properly for it because working on weekends means missing out on catching up with friends or watching your kids play sport.

We also realise that penalty rates are not an extravagance. They are a right not a privilege. They are not something to be spent on private school fees but something that is absolutely necessary for people to get by and survive.

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