We should be reluctant to let economic arguments trump the profound human ones for leaving penalty rates where they are, writes Evan Ellis.
BY Evan Ellis*
After the Fair Work Commission’s decision to slash Sunday penalty rates, Fairfax journalists did a ring-around of some of the most vocal supporters of the cuts – organisations like the Institute of Public Affairs, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, among others. The joke. They called on a Sunday. The punch line? No one answered.
The proposed cut to penalty rates was a big win for employer groups. For years they have argued that the rates were too high, out of step with community standards and punished businesses by making it too expensive to open up shop on a Sunday or public holiday.
The economic argument always marched lockstep with a more philosophical consideration about the nature of time – namely, that in a modern and secular society, operating under a 24-7 economy, Sunday was the same as any other day.
Granted, the Fair Work Commission didn’t agree entirely with this. Otherwise they would have lowered Sunday rates to Saturday levels. But the decision was a step in their direction. For Catholics, currently fasting in Lent, this argument is problematic.
The Church has a lot of skin in the game when it comes to public holidays and Sundays. The etymology of the word ‘holiday’ comes from the Old English ‘holy day’. In Australia the Catholic hierarchy has long supported restricted trading hours for Sundays and public holidays.
The Church’s year is modulated by liturgical seasons, which have their own distinctiveness like the white hot heat of summer or the changing hues of autumn. Lent has a different tenor or feel to other liturgical seasons, like Advent or Christmas.
Or it should, if you’re a more observant faster than me. Time goes a little slower without the caffeine, chocolate, alcohol or whatever. Our blinders get a little bit loosened with the focus on almsgiving. Walking stonily past a homeless person feels a little more sacrilegious in Lent.
The notion that all time is the same sits unwell in a tradition that holds “for everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).
But does this hold in an increasingly secular society? Those in favour of the cuts argue that the religious justifications for treating Sunday as special have waned alongside people’s religious observance.
To be clear, seeing the year as an endless procession of identically blank 24-hour blocs is a radical idea. It is alien to all the major religions, who divide time according to religious seasons or key events. It is also unrecognisable to traditional societies, which partitioned the year into distinct phases, often tied to the seasons and the patterns of the natural world.
No. This is a uniquely modern concept. And it makes little sense without reference to the overwhelming power of today’s global markets and the technologies that drive them.
Thanks to our ever-developing technologies, from the humble light bulb to the computers we keep in our pockets and call phones, we can now work at any hour of the day. And as markets become ever more global, it is always office hours somewhere in the world.
It starts to seem logical that we should answer emails over dinner, or touch up a PowerPoint in bed. We start to confuse ourselves with the technology we have created.
As the author Tony Schwartz has noted, “human beings are not designed to run like computers – at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. When we try to mimic the machines we’re meant to run, they end up running us”.
And yet, this is what inevitably happens when we surrender our sense of seasonality; that there are times to plant, harvest and also a time to down tools all together.
The Sabbath is a religious idea but not an esoteric theological one. It is rooted in a sound anthropological insight. To return to Tony Schwartz, “we’re designed to pulse. Our most basic survival need is to spend and renew energy… to be alert during the day and to sleep at night, but also to work at high intensity for limited periods of time and then rest and refuel”.
Sunday is when most of us rest and refuel. It is full of important events like Christenings, birthdays, catch-ups and lunches; the connections that give meaning and comfort to life. Hospitality, restaurant, fast food, retail and pharmacy workers miss out on this. Penalty rates remunerate them accordingly.
The irony is that those most in favour of the cuts, at some level, get this. That’s why they didn’t answer their phones. We should be reluctant to let economic arguments trump the profound human ones for leaving penalty rates where they are.
* Evan Ellis is a freelance writer currently on contract in the public sector.
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