By David Bates

Recently you will heard quite a bit about ‘penalty rates’, those extra amounts employers have to pay to employees as a ‘penalty’ for offering them work on weekends, at night, or on public holidays.

Perhaps you’ve come across stories about penalty rates in the paper or on the TV news or, like me, had your lunchtime walk disrupted by an angry crowd of protesters screaming ‘hands off penalty rates!’

So let’s put this debate into perspective with a real-life example of just how absurd things have now become.

On Easter Monday, I decided to head into town and do a bit of shopping. Like the thousands of other shoppers I encountered in the city’s crammed shopping malls, I’ve come to expect – and appreciate – the convenience of getting things done on a public holiday.

Unlike the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), I don’t think of lunchtime on Easter Monday as being an ‘unsociable’ time for employees to be at work. I particularly don’t think it’s an ‘unsociable time’ for those secular, casual employees who have volunteered to work on the day.

And given every employee has the legal right to refuse to work on a public holiday under the Fair Work Act, I know as a fact they don’t have to be at work if they’d rather be somewhere else.

And so, as my purchases were beings scanned at the counter, I commented to the clerk that it seemed very busy. Oh yes, he replied, and that’s good because the days go faster when you’re busy. But then he added: ‘But coz I’m being paid over $50 bucks an hour today, I don’t care how long it goes! And this is the easiest gig in the world – I’ve got it made mate!’.

I did the sums – 8 hours at $50 per hour – is just a little less than three quarters of the current national minimum weekly wage.

While the young man serving me certainly thought he had it made, I doubt his employer was thinking the same thing. Demanding small business owners pay relatively young and unskilled retail workers more than $50 an hour is, frankly, ridiculous.

Making them pay these wages for four straight days over the entire Easter because all of them have been gazetted as official public holiday is, frankly, outrageous.

Most highly qualified and experienced bookkeepers charge less than $50 per hour – is it really fair to expect a shop owner to pay that to a 20 year old casual uni student who wants to work on Easter Monday?

Why is it that when it comes to employment relations in this country we leave no room left for common sense?