Weekend Penalty Rates: An (Abridged) History

Photo: The Advocate

‘Why not abolish the burden? What difference is there if a man works a Saturday or Sunday and has week days off?’

Penalty rates for weekend-work have long been mired in controversy. In the 70 years since they were introduced by the then Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in 1947, weekend penalty rates have been a battleground for unions and businesses. The question raised above, for example – all too familiar to us – can be seen not only in the present, but also from a Manly reader of Sydney’s The Sun newspaper in 1953.

The recent decision of the Fair Work Commissioner is a landmark one, primarily because it puts on trial the existence of weekend penalty rates, and invites us to reconsider the historical justifications that underpin their significance. But, despite the various calls for the end, continuation, or adjustment to penalty rates for weekend-work, there is surprisingly little information available about their conception. In fact, the introduction of the rates does not feature on the Australian Parliamentary employment law history website, nor is it listed on the Australian Trade Union Archive’s own timeline of industrial award achievements. The history of the weekend penalty rate, although brief – and very dry – is elusive to many affected by it. Yet, reviewing this history can be insightful in learning how the nature of the penalty rate has changed, and how we have remained in the same debate about the rates ever since they were introduced seven decades ago.

Weekend penalty rates were introduced primarily as a compensatory measure for Australians who were unable to enjoy or take advantage of weekends due to shift work. In the early-to-mid 20th century, weekends were considered days that ought to be reserved for family, church and community, and after the end of the Second World War that was more important than ever. It is for that reason that many businesses were closed over weekends, particularly on Sundays. Those who had to work were seen to be sacrificing that precious time, and many workers, particularly unionists, demanded that they be compensated.

Years of union pressure and disruption had brought the issue of rates to a head in the Weekend Penalty Rates Case of 1947. The West Australian reported a strike conducted by employees of the gun forging department of the Commonwealth Steel Company as early as October 1940. The workers, who were also members of the Australian Railways’ Union and the Amalgamated Engineering Unions, had demanded penalty rates for weekend work because wages overall had been frozen due to the war effort. They were struggling financially, and were also sacrificing time with their families.

The decision of the Arbitration Court was not met with universal acclaim in 1947, and the disruptive ‘tactics’ of the unions were criticised. The Goulbourn Evening Post on 1 April 1947 stated that ‘in the case of the Arbitration Court any arrogant union or union official can throw mud or hurl threats without the slightest fear of going to gaol, much less paying a penalty.’ The newspaper stated that it was time for the Government to seriously consider the ‘lawless strikes and general contempt for responsibilities to the community as a whole’ that the unions had.

Seven decades on, while the remarks about unions remain the same, the nature of weekend penalty rates have changed.

Those campaigning in the 1940s for weekend penalty rates were predominantly men in their 30s and 40s with families whom they wanted to spend time with. Today, on the other hand, those receiving the rates are generally younger, single, and in many cases reliant on the rate for financial stability. Although weekends are still considered a time for family, we now live in a much more consumer-based society and expect businesses and services to operate 24/7. Furthermore, with the advent of technology and social media allowing people to communicate more readily, and the fact that millennials stay at home longer due to housing unaffordability, families are more connected than ever – weekends, therefore, don’t need to be reserved for family as often.

Thus, many echo the sentiments of the 1953 Manly resident in advancing that there is no difference between Saturday, Sunday or any other day of the week.  Having said this, many workplaces – particularly schools and universities – still operate on a Monday to Friday work week and this has, arguably, maintained some kind of distinction between weekday and weekend.

Ultimately, we are presented with a dilemma: look to weekend penalty rates in their 1940s conception as a compensatory measure, or recognise that the nature of the rate has changed and it is now centred, for many, on ensuring financial stability for workers.

The resolution of this dilemma, however, as the history above shows, may not be resolved for another couple of decades. The question, therefore, may lay in wage adjustments beyond just the realm of penalty rates.