The Australian, February 24, 2017:
Bill Shorten’s assault on the Fair Work Commission’s historic decision to cut the Sunday and public holiday penalty rates of hundreds of thousands of workers has been undermined by revelations that a worker he paraded as a victim of the far-reaching ruling would not be affected.
The Opposition Leader, who said before last year’s election campaign that he would accept the umpire’s decision on penalty rates, vowed yesterday Labor would “do everything in our power, in the parliament and in the courts to remedy this bad decision”.
His reversal came as Coles revealed that Trent Hunter, the young worker who appeared with Mr Shorten yesterday and claimed he would be $109 worse off per Sunday shift, was unaffected by the penalty rate cuts because he was employed on an enterprise agreement.
Furious union officials vowed to campaign against the penalty rate reductions, which they said represented the biggest industry-wide wage cuts imposed on workers since the Great Depression. But former ACTU president Martin Ferguson, now a tourism sector lobbyist, called on Labor and the unions to respect the decision.
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Employers hailed the commission’s decision after the Labor-appointed tribunal president Iain Ross found cuts to Sunday penalty cuts ranging from 25 to 50 per cent in the retail, hospitality, fast-food and pharmacy sectors would increase employment and trading hours.
Malcolm Turnbull and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the Coalition accepted the ruling of the independent umpire, and sought to link the ruling to Mr Shorten, who was workplace relations minister in the Gillard government when the penalty rates review was set up.
“It is an inconvenient truth for the Labor Party that … Bill Shorten as workplace relations minister amended the Fair Work Act to specifically require the Fair Work Commission to review penalty rates as part of the four-yearly review process,’’ Senator Cash said. “Today’s decision by the commission to adjust penalty rates is therefore a direct result of the review process put in place by Bill Shorten.”
Union analysis of the cuts, which bring Sunday rates closer to Saturday rates, found employees working eight-hour Sunday shifts each week could lose more than $6000 a year in take-home pay. According to the ACTU, retail, hospitality and fast-food workers could lose between $1893 and $4048 a year, while retail and pharmacy managers could be worse off by $4948 to $6608 a year.
The cuts will be phased in from July, with Justice Ross expressing an initial view that they should be brought in annually in at least two instalments.
The full bench backed the Productivity Commission’s assessment that there were “likely to be some positive employment effects” from cutting penalty rates. It said the evidence “supports the proposition that a lower Sunday penalty rate would increase service levels with a consequent increase in employment, in terms of hours worked by existing employees or the engagement of new employees”.
“In particular, a reduction in Sunday penalty rates is likely to lead to more stores being open on Sundays, increased Sunday trading hours, a reduction in hours by some owner operators, (and) an increase in overall hours worked in retail stores.”
Reflecting the political sensitivity surrounding pay cuts, Mr Turnbull described the commission ruling as “a decision of the independent umpire, not a decision of the government”.
“Bill Shorten promised he would accept the independent umpire’s decision no matter what it decided,’’ he said. “This is Bill Shorten’s decision: he initiated it, he backed it, he owns it. That’s why he’s now desperate to blame anyone other than himself.’’
ACTU president Ged Kearney said unions would never accept radical cuts to pay and called on the government to seek to reverse the decision. “Unless he acts now, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be forever remembered as the Prime Minister who oversaw the cutting of the take-home pay of almost one million of Australia’s lowest paid workers,’’ she said.
Labelling the decision a “shocker”, Mr Shorten said workers had received a “disastrous kick in the guts”. Labor would seek to formally oppose the decision when the tribunal convened hearings next month to consider submissions on the phasing in of the cuts.
Mr Ferguson, chair of Tourism Accommodation Australia, said the commission ruling should be respected. “From the industry point of view we haven’t got everything we want,’’ he said. “That is the nature of the Fair Work Commission. We respect their decision and we will try and make it work.’’
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said Labor and the unions should accept the ruling. “If the decision had gone the other way we would have — not been happy about it — but we would have accepted it because it is a neutral and a fair umpire,’’ Mr Willox said.
Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott said it was “essential that penalty rates continue to be set independently by the commission, free of political interference”.
“This decision recognises that the community’s view about what constitutes unsociable hours has shifted in the decades since penalty rates were first introduced,” she said.