UNION delegates converged on Bendigo yesterday in a push to keep penalty rates for workers in small businesses.
About 60 representatives from a range of unions met at Bendigo Trades Hall to voice concerns over the threat to remove weekend rates in industries such as hospitality and retail.
The conference revolved around a recent bill put to the senate by independent MP Nick Xenophon proposing small businesses be exempt from paying extra at weekends.
Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney told the conference that could spell disaster for regional centres.
Ms Kearney said small businesses were major employers in Bendigo and the local economy would be hurt if workers’ incomes were reduced.
“It would have flow-on effects for the whole community,” she said.
“It means less income for those workers to spend locally.”
Ms Kearney said the bill from Senator Xenophon to amend the Fair Work Act played into the hands of a scare campaign by business groups.
Ms Kearney said the unions recognised the difficult economic circumstances employers were facing, but said an exemption from paying penalty rates was not the solution.
“You can’t have a job that doesn’t pay you enough to survive,” she said.
“Not only will this plan be detrimental to workers and their families, but the fact they will have less money to spend in the community means the flow-on effect into the wider economy is immeasurable.”
Under the proposed amendment, penalty rates would still be payable, but only when an employee had worked more than 38 hours in seven days, or more than 10 hours in a day.
The changes would only apply to small businesses employing fewer than 20 full-time workers.
Labor candidate for Bendigo and United Voices Union official Lisa Chesters said it was an issue she would continue to pursue.
“I’ll always support the campaign to protest penalty rates,” she said.
“It’s core Labor business. Removing penalty and weekend rates would be the start of a slippery slope for worker rights.”
The Victorian Regional Trades and Labour Council Organising Conference was the first event bringing regional delegates from across Victoria together.