National News

Catholic Social Justice Council highlights three important issues for workers

Friday 29 April 2016

Office for Justice and Peace

THIS YEAR, the day usually given to the Memorial of St Joseph the Worker, 1 May, falls on the 6th Sunday of Easter, which takes precedence over the memorial according to the norms of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal and the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar.

So, while there is no Pastoral Letter for the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council continues its tradition of raising important issues concerning work and economic justice during the month of May. The following three issues are critical ones for people who are most disadvantaged because they struggle at the fringes of the labour market or are excluded from the market altogether.

The Church has always held a special concern for unemployed and vulnerable workers and their families. This concern was clearly stated by St John Paul II, in 1981, when he spoke on the broad subject of ‘Human Work’:

... the ‘poor’ appear under various forms; they appear in various places and at various times; in many cases they appear as a result of the violation of the dignity of human work: either because the opportunities for human work are limited as a result of the scourge of unemployment, or because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family. [Laborem Exercens n.8]

He said that the Church’s solidarity with poor and vulnerable workers is part of ‘her mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ, so that she can truly be the “Church of the poor”’.

With this in mind, the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council raises three issues:

The dignity of work is seen in the personal fulfilment that comes to the worker, the wages and conditions that meet the needs of families, and the wealth and relationships of solidarity that support the broader life of the community. The employment relationship involves more than the worker and employer – it involves all those who depend on the worker and the society that relies on the hard work and productivity of the worker. That is why society as a whole has a responsibility to address the causes of unemployment and share the burden carried by people who are denied the opportunity to work.

The Church regards the provision of unemployment benefits as a fundamental responsibility of society:

The obligation to provide unemployment benefits, that is to say, the duty to make grants indispensable for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families, is a duty springing from the fundamental principle of the moral order in this sphere, namely the common use of goods or, to put it in another and still simpler way, the right to life and subsistence. [Laborem Exercens n.18]

For years now, Australia has been failing in this duty. Payments like the Newstart Allowance are falling far behind community living standards and a majority of recipients experience great poverty and hardship. The single rate of Newstart is $263.80 – a paltry $37 a day. The Allowance is less than 20 per cent of average weekly earnings and far less than half the National Minimum Wage, which itself is characterised as poverty inducing pay. There has been no significant increase in Newstart since 1994. Over that time, the Allowance has fallen in value from 54 per cent to just 40 per cent of the minimum wage.

Three-quarters of the 770,000 people on Newstart have been on the payment for more than a year. The poverty they experience impedes their chances of winning a job in a highly competitive market. Currently there are only around 170,000 job vacancies Australia-wide.

The Australian Council of Social Service estimates around 55 per cent of recipients are living below the poverty line. Most are in financial stress. Many are unable to pay bills and often people simply live in debt. In a recent survey of over 75,000 rental properties around Australia, Anglicare found only 21 properties were affordable for single adults on Newstart, and just one for recipients of Youth Allowance.

Agencies like Catholic Social Services Australia and the Society of St Vincent de Paul have been calling for an increase to Allowance rates for decades. We are calling on our political leaders to lift the base rate of Newstart and other Allowances and to index them to average wages. We owe job seekers a genuine job creation strategy supported by decent training and wage subsidies. This is not the time to ‘crack down’ on people whose right to the dignity of work has already been broken. Increasing punitive requirements or imposing waiting periods is not the way to go.

Wages paid for the toil of the working week is the main way Australians meet the cost of living, of starting and raising a family, paying taxes and saving for the future. The Church holds that the wages paid to workers are a key indication of the fairness of a society

... wages, that is to say remuneration for work, are still a practical means whereby the vast majority of people can have access to the goods which are intended for common use ... Hence, in every case, a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly. [Laborem Exercens n.19]

Around 20 per cent of workers depend on the award safety net and associated conditions such as penalty rates, and hope that the annual adjustments to minimum wages undertaken by the Fair Work Commission will lift their wages to meet the higher costs of living. As has been the case with people relying on unemployment Allowances, however, workers reliant on minimum wages have seen their income slipping further and further behind average weekly earnings and, for some, below the poverty line.

A recent inquiry by the Productivity Commission recommended the reduction of weekend penalty rates and the Fair Work Commission is currently considering the possibility of reducing penalty rates for workers in the retail and hospitality sectors. The argument has been put that, for the sake of our 24/7 economy, penalty rates should be reduced or removed to free up weekend trade and to create more jobs. But the just functioning of the labour market is called into question where, for example, the two million people who work in retail and hospitality could end up shouldering the burden of their employer’s profitability or the government’s responsibility for creating jobs.

Penalty Rates are an important part of the safety net. They were introduced as a compensation for Sunday work in 1919 and extended to Saturdays in 1947. In 2005, when legislation threatened such basic entitlements of low-paid workers, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference spoke strongly:

Our concern is that many workers, especially the poor and vulnerable, may be placed in a situation where they will be required to bargain away some of their entitlements. In particular, we refer to overtime rates, penalty rates and rest breaks.

They call for these entitlements to be protected.

It would be unacceptable for already struggling workers to be made to forgo penalty rates that are used to top up low rates of pay. For many, penalty rates comprise more than 30 per cent of their wages. It has been estimated that a reduction of Sunday rates to the level of Saturday rates would see a 17 per cent wage cut for restaurant employees and a 38 per cent reduction for retail workers.

And it’s not just the workers who would be likely to suffer. Children could see their sports and other recreational activities cancelled because their parents have less disposable income. Alternatively they might see their parents even less as these workers seek additional irregular hours of work to make up for the shortfall in their pay.

Local economies are also vulnerable. The McKell Institute has found that a reduction or abolition of penalty rates for retail and hospitality workers in rural communities would see a loss of pay of between $370 million and $1.5 billion each year and a reduction of $175 to almost $750 million in disposable income, affecting discretionary spending and damaging the very industries that are calling for the cuts to penalty rates.

Organisations like the Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations and the NSW-based Catholic Commission for Employment Relations are lobbying strongly against the reduction or removal of penalty rates for these low-paid workers. They maintain:

... an appropriate penalty should continue to be paid for the family time that is sacrificed by those workers who work on weekends, and not reduced. While penalty rates cannot remedy the negative impacts of working unsociable hours, they can and should provide fair and just compensation for some of the detriment.

The Church says that work is a means to the ends of personal fulfilment, family formation and social engagement. It is not an end in itself. Work is for the benefit of humanity, not the other way around. Time for relaxation with family and friends is a social benefit of work that must be protected as a ‘right to rest’:

In the first place this involves a regular weekly rest comprising at least Sunday, and also a longer period of rest, namely the holiday or vacation taken once a year or possibly in several shorter periods during the year.’ [Laborem Exercens n.19]

We are a hard-working nation. An Australia Institute study estimates that over half of Australia’s workers are doing unpaid overtime – work that contributes $128 billion to employers each year. Nearly half of all full-time workers feel overworked and want to work fewer hours, yet are failing to take leave to which they are entitled. On the other hand, one third of part-time workers and nearly half of all casual workers are seeking more hours, no matter how irregular those hours of work are. Households on less than $40,000 per annum are far more likely to be seeking additional hours.

Anything that takes us away from family and intrudes on normal times of rest is a problem. But it is a particular problem for low-paid workers engaged on an irregular basis and having to work on weekends and public holidays. Think for example of those in the retail and hospitality sector who are regularly in the position of having to sacrifice time with family or friends.

Pope Francis says this intrusion of work undermines the ‘true moment of celebration’ that brings work to a pause and allows for personal reflection, the gathering of family and friends and important communal engagement in worship, recreation and cultural events:

The time for rest, especially on Sunday, is ordained for us so that we can enjoy what is not produced and not consumed, not bought and not sold. Instead we see that the ideology of profit and consumerism even wants to feed on celebration: it too is sometimes reduced to a ‘business’, to a way of making and spending money ... It harms true labour and consumes life.

We need to reject the notion that that the weekend can be sacrificed to a ‘24/7 economy’ or that Sunday is ‘just another day’ in the trading cycle. Most Australians work Monday to Friday between 8.00 am and 6.00 pm and Sunday remains predominantly a non-work day. It is the consensus of Australians that those having to work on weekends, particularly Sundays, should be compensated for their sacrifice of common time. An Essential Media Poll has found that 81 per cent of people surveyed believe that employees working irregular hours should receive penalty rates. Around 70 per cent oppose cutting weekend and public holiday penalty rates. If workers are required to work irregular hours, they should be fairly compensated.

It is time for us to rediscover the importance of the Sabbath for our own good and the good of our families and community. In their 2012–2013 Social Justice Statement, the Australian Catholic Bishops said that the biblical notion of Sabbath offers an antidote to the frenetic competition for time that intrudes so much into family life. It is not simply a prohibition against working on Sundays, but involves the promotion of personal and family fulfilment through worship, relaxation and freedom from the demands of the working week.

Sabbath informs our concern for social justice for the most vulnerable workers. For on the Sabbath, people are freed from the bonds of being producers or consumers. We do not have someone looking over our shoulder or watching the clock. On this day we are not defined by what we do or what status we hold in the workplace. It is also a time of equity and justice; everyone shares the ‘right to rest’, not just those who can afford it.

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