Editorial: Penalty rates a hot topic of debate yet again

It is the never-ending debate that continues to ignite every time a public holiday rolls around in Victoria.

But when will that debate end?

In April last year, we saw a number of prominent local businesses shut their doors amid claims they could not afford to pay their staff exorbitant wages over the Easter holiday period.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, a casual worker under the Restaurant Industry Award, whose hourly pay rate is $22.76, should receive $45.53 per hour on any public holiday.

One restaurant owner said at the time that wages would outstrip sales.

Another said while their hotel business suffered from being shut, it would have incurred bigger loses had the hotel remained open.

The same debate erupted again when the state government announced a public holiday for AFL Grand Final Eve, with many businesses this time questioning why Victoria needed another public holiday. 

This week we read similar stories after the government announced it had reversed its decision not to declare Christmas Day a public holiday after conceding it made the wrong call – five weeks out from Christmas.

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Mark Stone claimed many businesses will be out of pocket from the extra holiday, having already planned rosters, expenditure and operations over the Christmas period.

He described the decision as “ill-conceived” and a “slap in the face” for owners and operators.

“We are in support of the original policy, where a Christmas Day public holiday on a weekend is held on the next available work day, but this extra public holiday on the Sunday has gone too far,” he said.

The idea of penalty rates was introduced in 1947 to compensate those working on weekends while others did not. 

But decades have since passed and much has changed for the average Australian, who now expects to be able to shop and eat at all-hours of the day and night.

We know another change over the years has been the increase in the number of public holidays.

Maybe we need to consider removing some public holidays so we can put an end to this relentless cycle of the penalty rate debate. Or maybe penalty rates need to be updated to meet our modern work patterns.

Why not both?

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