IN the past 30 years, the national unemployment rate as measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been as high as 11 per cent, and as low as 4 per cent. Youth unemployment, over the same period, has been as high as 25 per cent, and as low as 12 per cent. Today, the overall jobless rate is about 5.7 per cent and falling. The youth rate, in contrast, has worsened this year, topping 18 per cent.
There is no single cause for the difference between the two rates, but employers, especially, are convinced that a lot more jobs could be created for young people if penalty rates were cut and employment further deregulated to reflect the new reality of a commercial world operating seven days a week with increasingly little difference between weekdays and weekends.
The cost of operating at weekends came up at a meeting this week of the Tomaree Business Chamber, which had invited the new Federal Member for Paterson, Meryl Swanson, to hear about the difficulties faced by Nelson Bay retailers. Echoing the official Labor line, Ms Swanson argued that penalty rates and workplace flexibility were separate issues. Nelson Bay pharmacist Rory Milne – who describes weekend and holiday trading as “loss-making exercise” – sees the two as linked, and says the entire system needs an overhaul. While retailers employ people of all ages, it is fair to say that many young Australians find their first job in the sector, whether it’s a casual shift at a fast-food outlet or a turn behind the cash register at one of the country’s big supermarket chains.
At the NSW Industrial Relations Society conference at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley next month, David Bliss from the Newcastle branch of the main retail union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, is scheduled to speak about the challenges facing sector a sector with a high proportion of part-time, casual and seasonal workers. Although traditional trade unionism was built on the premise of permanent jobs where possible, with penalty rates for work outside of daylight weekday hours, the world has undoubtedly moved on.
The trick for unions, employers and the Fair Work Commission – as the national umpire of working conditions – is to come up with an employment framework that recognises the reality of a disrupted and round-the-clock working world, without letting go of the egalitarian fairness that characterises the Australian workplace at its ideal best.