Flexibility: at what cost?

Issue 

When I began full-time work in the late 1980s, the working day began and ended at the same time every day. Any change to the routine meant overtime, paid at time-and-a-half or more. Even a delay in the regular lunch break meant overtime paid until the work stopped.

Now, for many, overtime payments are a thing of the past and Patricia Forsyth and the Sydney Chamber of Commerce want to make the working day even more “flexible” — but at whose expense?

In a comment piece for the Sydney Morning Herald on May 18 entitled “Ditch the peak hour squeeze and embrace flexible work schedules”, Forsyth welcomed the recommendations of the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) for Sydney public transport. In its review of the Opal card system, IPART recommended that fares be increased for peak-hour commuters and the cost of off-peak fares be slashed. This would make it cheaper and more attractive to travel outside peak hours, to start work early and stay back late.

Forsyth and her ilk want a 12-hour working day — 7am to 7pm — and a 7-day working week to boot. Work for as long as you like, whenever you like, but do not dare ask for penalty rates, overtime or time off in lieu.

Of course, there can be some real advantages to a flexible work day. If childcare, exercise, appointments and mealtimes can all be negotiated, work can be made to fit around human needs. But that is not what Forsyth is talking about.

The Australia Institute estimates that workers in Australia donate $110 billion to their bosses every year! As this endless election campaign unfolds, the Fair Work Commission is preparing to slash the penalty rates of hospitality and retail workers. Despite calls from unions, supported by the Greens, to legislate to preserve penalty rates, Labor has refused to cooperate, leaving the fate of the lowest-paid to a collection of former bosses' advocates.

Forsyth, the Chamber of Commerce and the Fair Work Commission want us to be available and willing at their beck and call, anytime, any day. And they want us to do this without penalty rates, without overtime or any other consideration.

Flexible hours can be useful, but not when the bosses control the roster. When they want us to work from sunrise to sunset, overtime and penalties must follow.

Flexibility is fine when we are properly compensated. A little gravy can help the pay packet last the full fortnight. But flexibility without choice and without penalties, is just more money in the bosses' pocket at our expense.

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