Penalty rates have as much to do with encouraging Australian social and community cohesion and reducing health issues as "dollars in the paypacket".
Penalty rates apply to a minority of Australian workers and disproportionately affect those on the lower end of the pay scale. They exist to compensate work occurring at a time that is not 'prime', at a time when most Australians hope and expect to spend time with their friends and families, or engage in cultural activities.
It is easy for those of us who have never had to rely on penalty rates to dismiss them as irrelevant. The vast majority of us work within the Monday-Friday recognized normal workframe. However we, of course, want access to goods and services in our free time, which means a relatively small group of workers make this 24/7 economy possible. Yet it’s their wages (of which the penalty element is very significant) that are on the line.
Many performers and entertainers primarily work, to the benefit of us as the audience, in these 'prime' hours.
When you make any change to working conditions, there is always a benefit and cost. Removing or making a drastic reduction to weekend penalty rates, will make businesses both large and small that already run at the weekend, even more profitable, at the expense of their worker’s paypacket.
The 'cost' is in general happiness. Penalty rates allow workers to balance work and family at the weekend. I see much more of my children on the weekends than I do during the week. Looking at it from a different perspective, if pay rates fell across the board, we would be forced to work longer hours to keep the same income. All our weekends are equally important, whoever you are.
Loss of social cohesion, of time bonding with family and friends, brings about more loneliness, alienation and isolation among the working population. This will equate into more demands on our health system for both mental and physical problems. It turns a direct cost into an indirect one - and it’s inevitable. We spend about $1bn a week already on Health Services (about the same as the Military budget, coincidentally).
Direct costs to the economy, such as penalty rates, are easy to spot in the budget balance sheet and remove. But these short term changes usually lead to longer indirect costs, in particular in the Health budget. There is no easy win on a subject like this. A 3% rise in the Health budget would be an extra $30m a week from our taxes.
The Fair Work Commission should be the key voice in this conversation and they already manage modifications to the penalty rates. They certainly do not advocate removing them. In the absence of any other compensatory reforms, neither do we. Weekend work is taxing on relationships and health, so weekend pay should reflect that.