It is regarded as basic right, but government productivity panel says times have changed
For The Straits Times
Crowds fill the Pitt Street Mall in the heart of Sydney, the shopping plazas and cafes are packed, and the traffic through the city centre is moving at its usual snail's pace.
It is a Sunday, and the hustle and bustle looks much like that on any other day of the week.
It is this scene which is at the centre of a new debate in Australia about workers' rights, as the government and the business community consider reducing extra pay on Sundays - a bonus that has long been regarded as a basic right.
Workers on Sundays receive an extra 50 per cent to 100 per cent of their weekday rate. However, the government's Productivity Commission, an independent advisory body, has proposed scaling back the bonus. The commission recommended on Aug 4 that Sunday rates be set at the same as Saturday rates - which would mean a bonus of about 25 per cent to 50 per cent - except for essential services.
The commission said Australian society had changed in recent decades and the public increasingly tolerated people working on weekends, particularly in non-essential services. It said the shift has been caused by factors such as a reduction in religious observance and changing attitudes to shopping times. "Some four million employed people - more than one in three in the workforce - work at least a Saturday or Sunday each week," the commission said in a report.
STILL A DAY FOR FAMILY OR REST
Even though there has been a cultural shift in terms of people working and shopping on Sundays, people still have a sense of Sunday as a day of social connection, or rest, or catching up on sleep.
DR LARA CORR, an expert on public health at the Australian National University
The proposal has proven divisive and led to discussion on the evolution of the Australian weekend, with some saying Sunday remains a special day, even if Australians no longer see it as a day for going to church.
Dr Lara Corr, an expert on public health at the Australian National University, has researched the health impacts of different work times and found that weekends were still important for people - especially families - to relax and to "connect".
"Even though there has been a cultural shift in terms of people working and shopping on Sundays, people still have a sense of Sunday as a day of social connection, or rest, or catching up on sleep," she said.
These views appeared to be backed by public opinion, with a poll in Fairfax Media last Sunday finding 53 per cent of people opposed reducing Sunday rates and only 33 per cent supported it, with the remainder undecided.
The polls suggested that the ruling conservative coalition could struggle to make any changes.
Business groups indicated support for changes, saying the penalty rates were too complicated and prevented employers from hiring.
The head of the Business Council of Australia, Ms Jennifer Westacott, said the government's workplace authority should determine "a modern definition for unsociable hours in each industry". This definition could then be used to set the penalty rates across the entire economy.
Economic commentators largely echoed this call, saying lower Sunday rates would largely affect competitive industries, in which businesses were more likely to pass on lower costs to consumers. But some said the changing nature of Sunday activities did not mean workers should lose extra payment for working when most others were not.
"Sunday is no longer a sacred festival for most people; they would rather shop and go to the footy (football)," veteran political commentator Mungo MacCallum wrote in a blog for The Monthly magazine.
"The reason that customers are out there is quite simply that they don't have to work... For those workers who are required to turn up, compensation is only fair and natural - they are losing the free time that is available to others."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'Cut bonus for Sunday work? Aussies divided.