Un-Fair Work Commission cuts penalty rates, delivers pay cut to 700,000 low-paid workers

February 23, 2017
Protest outside Fair Work Commission on February 23. Photo: Sarah Hathway/Green Left Weekly.

The misnamed Fair Work Commission decided on February 23 to cut Sunday penalty rates. This will slash the take-home pay of about 700,000 workers in the retail, hospitality and fast food sectors by up to $6000 a year.

The commission will also reduce public holiday penalty rates for full-time and part-time workers in these industries.

Victorian Trades Hall Council and We Are Union called a snap action outside the Fair Work Commission in Melbourne just before the decision was announced.

The Rail Tram and Bus Union, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, United Voice, the National Tertiary Education Union, the Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association and the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance were among the unions present.

The message was clear: “First, they come for the retail and hospitality workers, next they will come for our industry”.

“This is disgusting,” Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Luke Hilakari told the crowd. “These are young people [and] these are older workers, who rely on this money to make sure they can put food on the table and they can pay their bills.

“We’ve had penalty rates in this country since 1919. This is an attack on hospitality and retail workers. If you think this is going to stop here, you've got rocks in your head. It’ll start here and go to our emergency services workers, then to the nursing community. It will go to anyone who works on the weekend.”

Secretary of Geelong Trades Hall Council Colin Vernon told Green Left Weekly that the union movement had seen the decision coming since the Productivity Commission handed down its recommendations. “This was the result of a bosses’ inquiry,” he said.

The pay cut to some of the lowest paid workers in the country comes as retail corporations post huge profits.

JB HI FI announced a $95.2 million profit over six months between July and December 2016. Woolworths announced a half year profit of $725.3 million. Yet, these corporations claim they cannot afford Sunday penalty rates.

A number of major retail and fast food chains, including McDonalds, Woolworths, Coles and Dominos have already scrapped Sunday rates after reaching agreements with the notorious Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) to cut penalty rates.

The outrage by members of the SDA at these deals has fuelled support for the new Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU). It opposes the SDA’s sell out on penalty rates and is keen to represent workers’ interests.

A post on the RAFFWU Facebookpage said: “The rot started years ago. Today’s cuts to Sunday rates for retail and fast food workers reliant on the award are an unsurprising disgrace.”

The decision will be implemented in July. To defeat this attack, unions need to mount a serious fight and build a broad front of all those impacted by this decision — including women and young workers. Now is the time to join your union and get active: hospitality workers should join United Voice and retail and fast food workers should join the RAFFWU. If you are currently unemployed, join the Australian Unemployed Workers Union.

The ACTU has responded by launching a petition to pressure the federal government and crossbench to act to prevent any cut in the take-home pay of low-paid workers as a result of this decision. More than 40,000 had signed on in the first 24 hours. What is needed now is to turn that response into ongoing mobilisation.

Vernon said unionists had met in Geelong on February 24 to organise to step up their response.

“We’ll be hitting the streets, talking to the community and doing whatever it takes to bring the issue right up to the Parliament," he said. "The fact that the laws allow Fair Work to make this decision is an outrage. Weekend rates should be enshrined in law so that they can’t be touched. These laws need to be changed.”

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