Want To Defend Sunday Penalty Rates? Here’s How You Do It.

Photo: Michele Mossop

Alex McKinnon is a Walkley-nominated writer and journalist, and a former editor of Junkee and the Star Observer.

Approx 5 minute reading time

By now, you’ve probably heard the news: penalty rates ain’t what they used to be. This morning the Fair Work Commission ruled that Sunday pay rates for retail, hospitality, pharmacy and fast food workers should be cut, in order to “increase the level and range of services offered on Sundays and public holidays”.

The rates of change vary, if you work in retail or pharmacy full- or part-time, double-time on Sundays has been cut to time-and-a-half, while if you’re a casual fast-food worker, you’ll be getting time-and-a-half on Sundays instead of time-and-three-quarters. No matter which of these industries you’re employed in, or whether you work full-time, part-time or casually, the common takeaway is this: from July 1, when the Commission’s ruling comes into effect, you’ll be taking home less money in your weekly pay packet.

Unsurprisingly, non-government politicians and unions have reacted to the news with fury, as have thousands of current and former hospo and retail workers who rely on weekend penalty rates to live. Waiters, cafe workers, pharmacy sales assistants, hospitality workers and fast food cooks are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, and stories have already begun to emerge of struggling workers and families who stand to lose a large chunk of their already-meagre weekly pay.

The go-to advice in most situations like this is “join your union”, and usually it’s good advice to follow. There’s abundant evidence showing that workers in unionised workplaces enjoy better pay and conditions than their non-union counterparts, especially members of vulnerable groups like women, low-income earners and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers.

But the particulars of the retail and hospo industries mean workers looking to defend their Sunday rates might want to try a different approach. A lot of fast-food and retail workers, especially in big chains like McDonald’s, Coles and Woolworths, must be wondering what the fuss is about; after all, if you work for one of those giant companies, chances are you don’t get double-time on Sundays at the moment anyway. Why should you care about pay rates you never had in the first place?

The answer to that question – and the reason many workers for the big chains have no penalty rates to lose – is a very interesting one. The union responsible for protecting retail, hospitality and fast-food workers is called the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, or the SDA for short. On paper, it’s a doozy of a union – it’s the biggest union in the country, with more than 230,000 members, and senior Labor MPs like Tony Burke, Kate Ellis and Nick Champion all boast a history with the SDA.

But the SDA’s reputation to protect the retail and hospo workers they claim to represent has taken some big hits in the last few years. In August, Fairfax published a massive investigation revealing that the SDA had cut deals with some of the country’s biggest retail and fast-food chains that left more than 250,000 workers being paid below what they’re worth.

In exchange for companies signing up workers to the union on their behalf, the SDA allowed giant companies like Coles, Woolworths, KFC, Hungry Jack’s and McDonald’s to pay their staff less than the award wage and forgo paying them penalty rates.

That’s not all. Rather than agitating for higher pay and better conditions for its members, the SDA has spent much of the past decade campaigning against something else altogether: marriage equality. SDA President Joe de Bruyn, who has effectively run the organisation since 1978, has poured SDA resources for years into dissuading the Labor Party from supporting marriage equality. In his own words, “marriage started with Adam and Eve”. It’s a very weird issue for a fast-food union to take on, especially since most workers in retail and hospo are young, female and more likely to support marriage equality than the broader population.

So what’s a KFC chip-fryer or cafe dishpig alarmed about their Sunday rates to do? Relying on the SDA to protect you isn’t going to cut it; the SDA signed off on cutting weekend penalty rates for retail workers in South Australia in 2015.

But there might be somewhere else to turn. In November last year, a group of unionists, volunteers and supporters fed up at the SDA’s inaction formed the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, or RAFFWU.

Since then, RAFFWU has taken a far more active and vigilant stance against employers who underpay, mistreat and exploit their workers. They’ve visited hundreds of workers in supermarkets and fast-food chains around the country, launched the Taking Back Our Penalty Rates campaign, and started renegotiating employment terms for around 400 Bakers Delight workers in Victoria.

RAFFWU President Josh Cullinan reckons if fast-food workers and shelf-stackers under agreements negotiated by the SDA had been receiving award weekend penalty rates like everyone else, it would have been much harder for the Fair Work Commission to cut them like it did today.

“Those workers at the major retail and fast-food outlets have already had these penalty rates cut,” Cullinan says. “That’s half a million workers out of the fight. We don’t think the Commission could have cut rates today if those 500,000 workers were in the fight.”

Cullinan strongly believes the SDA has little interest in trying to protect Sunday rates from going. “If people want their penalty rates back, they shouldn’t be turning to the organisation that cut them in the first place. It’s akin to putting the vampire in charge of the blood bank. There’s only one organisation that’s fighting for these rates, and that’s us.”

RAFFWU has no intention of being silent in the fight to keep Sunday penalty rates; the organisation has already had its largest sign-up day since it first launched. Memberships start from as little as $2.30 a week for under-18s and $3.70 a week for casual workers. Money’s often tight when you’re working retail or hospo, but that amount each week is well worth it for getting a union like RAFFWU in your corner.

If you’re not a retail or fast-food worker but still want to chip in, you can become a RAFFWU solidarity supporter for as little as you like. It’s a great option if you have family or friends in the industry who you’re sick of seeing getting taken for granted, or if you’re furious about the penalty rate cuts but aren’t sure what you can do to help.

Whether or not Sunday penalty rates get the chop will hinge on peoples’ response over the next few months. If you’re looking for a tangible and effective way to contribute to that fight, giving RAFFWU a leg-up is a great place to start.

Take some action

Learn more about becoming a member here

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