Labour Day – What’s it really all about?

Home - Awards - Labour Day – What’s it really all about?

Labour Day – What’s it really all about?

Labour Day is celebrated around Australia (and in many other countries around the world). In Australia it’s celebrated on a range of dates in March and May and, depending on which State you live in, you may know it as Labour Day, 8 Hour Day or May Day.

It’s conventionally seen as one of the great achievements of the broader Union movement, because it marked a recognition that ‘workers’ should not be expected to work more than 8 hours per day, 5 days per week. But is that really what it was all about? Or was there a broader principle underpinning it?

My take on it is that the battle leading up to this pivotal moment in employment regulation was far more about workplace safety and preventing unscrupulous employers taking advantage of people with no bargaining power, than the arbitrary notion that no-one should be expected to work more than 8 hours a day. It was about ensuring a living wage could be earned in return for a reasonable number of hours spent at work. And on that basis, it was a red letter day in Australia’s history.

In the decades since this pivotal change in our workplace laws, we’ve seen a number of changes and truck-loads of additional regulation. Particularly in the area of workplace safety we have seen slow, but significant, steps taken year-on-year until the modern workplace is unrecognisable by comparison with workplaces 30 years ago. And that is a very good thing!

To a lesser extent we are finally seeing predatory employers who pay less than they ought, prey on the vulnerable (many working on visas) and deem workers contractors so they do not have to pay the on-costs associated with employment – including superannuation and workers compensation insurance, brought to account. There have been an increasing number of interventions in this space overt the past 12 months, but there is a long way to go before employees’ rights are truly protected.

And what of the 8 hour day? As everyone in our industry is aware (along with everyone in retail-type industries) a decision was made late in 2017 to limit the number of hours a person could work to 38 hours prior to overtime being payable. Certainly in our industry – and particularly for chefs – there are a number of roles that simply can’t be delivered in 38 hours. The new regulations certainly didn’t consider pragmatics – just setting a ‘one size fits all’ arbitrary line in the sand.

Do we believe that employees should be paid for all the hours they work? Absolutely! Do we believe that people working outside of ‘normal’ Mon-Fri 9-5 hours should be compensated for doing so by the payment of shift penalties? Absolutely? Has limiting ‘ordinary’ hours to 38 delivered workplace flexibility and the opportunity to earn a liveable wage for employees? Maybe not!

Over the past 2 years we’ve seen a very large number of people who want to earn what is a comfortable wage for their circumstances prevented from doing so because employers simply refuse to pay overtime rates for what is a ‘normal’ work day. They’re happy to pay for every hour, but the arbitrary 38 hour ‘limit’ means they offer fewer hours so that they can keep their wage costs under control – which is essential if they are to survive.

From our perspective, this ‘blunt stick’ approach means that many people who have worked for us for years and like to work 40-50 hours a week, can no longer do so. They can get those hours on a salary, but their hourly pay rate goes down, so they don’t earn what they want to. In most circumstances, we can’t offer them the hours we used to, because the majority of our clients refuse to pay the overtime cost – they simply can’t afford it.

So as we contemplate Labour Day and what it set out to achieve, maybe there’s cause to pause and consider whether the principles it introduced to employment in Australia are truly being achieved as we roll into 2021? Substantially? Yes. Completely? We’re not so sure!