*Story originally published in Courier Mail
RELIEF could be in sight for hundreds of thousands of small businesses struggling with the cost of paying staff penalty rates.
A draft report into workplace relations by the Productivity Commission, to be released within weeks, is expected to vindicate business owners’ complaints that they are hamstrung by penalty rates and face too many hurdles taking cases to the Fair Work Commission.
And Small Business Minister Bruce Billson has hinted strongly that the Abbott Government could be ready to lower the threshold of evidence required from small businesses which go to a national workplace tribunal.
Any move to reduce or dump penalty rates would be deeply divisive.
Unions warn that some low-paid workers rely on them to put food on the table, while businesses say economic growth is being stifled by the current system.
Industry associations claim the high level of youth unemployment could be cut by reducing penalty rates.
The Productivity Commission will take further submissions on the draft report before presenting its final version to the Government in November. Mr Billson has urged small businesses to recount their experiences to industry associations which can lobby on their behalf.
He said owners of pharmacies, convenience stores and service stations had told him they couldn’t open on public holidays because penalty rates were too steep. The commission is considering whether penalty rates are too high, prevent business from hiring more staff and whether it is too expensive and time-consuming for small businesses to ask the Fair Work Commission to reduce penalty rates.
The Fair Work Commission, not the Government, sets penalty rates which can apply to working at weekends, public holidays, overtime, late night or early morning shifts.
While refusing to pre-empt the outcome of the Productivity Commission’s findings, Mr Billson said: “Having a viable business is a prerequisite for people to get work in the first place. If there’s penalty rates that are poorly calibrated and ... might impede a business from opening ... that’s not in keeping with the workplace relations system.’’
Queensland Council of Unions president John Battams said families were reliant on penalty rates. “The extra pay for working unsociable hours means they can put food on the table, pay the mortgage or rent, or simply survive. Any cut will put them under even more financial pressure. The business lobby says we now live in a 24/7 society but Queenslanders still value their weekends as a time to see friends, play sport or spend with family.’’
Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry advocacy director Nick Behrens said most small businesses were reducing operating hours because of penalty rates. “It can be observed that overall, the current system of penalty rates is preventing Queensland small businesses from tailoring their staffing arrangements to the peak demand periods for their products and services.”
‘I think we deserve a little extra’
LIKE a knife and fork or salt and pepper, opinion penalty rates was firmly divided at hip Gold Coast cafe Burleigh Social yesterday.
Not surprisingly, cafe owner Jarrod Barnett was in favour of rates being scrapped.
Equally unsurprisingly, his staff had a contrary view.
Mr Barnett, 24, who opened the establishment late last year, said penalty rates were a burden for small hospitality businesses like his which have to trade on weekends and public holidays to survive.
“Baristas get around $20 an hour on normal days but it goes up to $38 an hour on Sundays and public holidays,’’ he said.
“You could understand if it was a five-star restaurant or big hotel, but for small businesses like ours, penalty rates are crazy.
“We have seven staff at the moment and would like to put on more but you have to balance up the cost of wages.’’
Burleigh Social’s head chef Josh Everingham said he would probably have to look for another career if penalty rates were abolished.
“We have to do a four-year apprenticeship and work long, hard hours, so I think we deserve a little extra on Sundays and public holidays,’’ he said.
“That’s when cafes and restaurants make all their money so I feel quite entitled to my share.’’
Waitress Lauren Barley, 22, who works at the cafe between university studies, said she enjoyed receiving penalty rates but would not mind them being scrapped for weekend work.
“But I’d draw the line at them being removed on public holidays, especially around Christmas and Easter when I’d rather be spending time with my family,’’ she said.
Mr Barnett said he supported penalty rates for qualified staff such as chefs.