Current Issue #488

Fair pay is a right, not a Christmas present

Be kind to service workers and stock image models this Christmas

A year of breathtaking wage theft scandals has left many high-profile employers on the naughty list. Let’s not repeat those mistakes this festive season.

Between Christmas shopping and the endless gauntlet of end-of-year dos, December is the busiest time of year for the retail and hospitality industries. At the same time, we’re bidding farewell to a year that has seen both national supermarket chains and intimate-and-relaxed-dining-experiences revealed to have underpaid their staff in magnitudes of millions. In light of this, it’s worth taking a moment to remind ourselves, and our employers, why casual loading is so important.

Casual loading is, of course, the additional payment made on top of a casual employee’s fixed hourly wage. It is most often contextualised as financial compensation for the rights and entitlements casual workers relinquish, including paid sick, annual, and family violence leave and the certainty of ongoing work.

But casual loading is also intended as financial compensation to those workers who forgo some, or all, of the shared social time the rest of us value so much. Even if we are not religious, or particularly thrilled about family lunch in Nanna’s too-hot house, the fact that everyone is on holidays at the same time opens an extended opportunity for you to spend time with the people you actually do like. This is true of your weekly Sunday brunch, but it is particularly compounded over the Christmas to New Year’s break as people fly in from interstate or overseas and extended getaways are organised.

In addition to longer shifts, retail and hospitality staff must also steel themselves for an increase in difficult customer behaviour as bars fill with people enthusiastically knocking-off for a fortnight, and shops filled with agitated customers who have left their shopping too late.

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This kind of behaviour can range from mildly unpleasant interactions to customer-perpetrated sexual harassment. The Working Women’s Centre SA is preparing for an annual spike in sexual harassment complaints from staff Christmas parties. They encourage employers to remind their teams that their workplace code of conduct extends to the off-site party.

But what can get forgotten is the experience of the bartenders and wait-staff working a few of those a day. Research from the Australian Human Rights Commission shows that of the 25 per cent of female employees, and 16 per cent of male employees, who had experienced workplace sexual harassment almost one in 10 identified the perpetrator as a customer. Recent research out of Canberra suggests that when it comes to this kind of sexual harassment, employers “may be legally responsible for… if they have not proactively sought to minimise or prevent harm”.

This is all to say that workers are very much earning their extra 25 per cent or so. It is not an optional extra to be paid if business owners think they can afford it. The holiday season would not be possible without the workers who are preparing our meals, pouring our drinks and recommending good gifts for our in-laws at 4.55pm on Christmas Eve. They facilitate our fun. If you’re unsure if you are being paid the correct rate, or whether as an employer you are paying the correct rate, the Fairwork Ombudsman has a useful online wage calculator. Claiming ignorance is no longer acceptable.

Casual loading is not a privilege but, as labour norms are eroded, it is increasingly easy for those with (financial) interest to reframe rights as privileges. It won’t make it onto any greeting cards, but here’s a seasonal greeting worth remembering: ensuring staff are safe and remunerated is a right, opening on a Public Holiday is not.

Gemma Beale

Gemma Beale

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Gemma Beale is a PhD candidate at the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute, Flinders University exploring the relationship between precarious employment and industry closure.

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