Why ‘penalty’ rates?

The government’s back-flip on AWAs, which will prevent ‘unfair’ loss of penalty rates, led to stories in the media about those who think they were hard-done-by under the previous WorkChoices rules, such as this one in The Age about about four schoolgirls who:

have worked for franchised food retailers in shopping malls, and all were signed up to WorkChoices agreements that stripped away penalty rates in return for small hourly pay increases

Politically, it no doubt makes sense to minimise the number of ‘losers’ in a reform. But as a matter of policy, it is far from clear why there should be mandated higher rates for particular hours of the day or days of the week. Google hasn’t been able to find me a history of penalty rates in Australia, but the standard argument for them is summarised in this speech to the NSW Parliament:

Shift loadings and penalty rates for work in ordinary time on weekends and work outside the normal span of hours are intended to compensate for the inconvenience associated with working unsociable hours. Work after 5.30 p.m. is generally regarded as being in unsociable hours, and has a negative impact on both personal and family wellbeing. …

Employees are less inclined to work on Saturdays and Sundays because they are dominant days for sport, leisure, community activities and religious celebrations. Time off during the week does not compensate for time lost on Saturdays and Sundays. This is the reason workplace arrangements have always recognised and endorsed penalty rates in the form of higher hourly payments for these days.

The very term ‘penalty rates’ is revealing. The higher wages are not to reward the employee for turning up at an inconvenient time, but to punish the employer for transgressing a prescriptive form of familism, which sets out what families must do at which times. This is an old-fashioned view of the family, the one found in the (in)famous Harvester Judgment of a man working full-time, with a wife at home to do all the cooking and shopping, minimising the need for paid workers to offer those services at ‘unsociable’ hours. It makes John Howard’s black and white TV era ideas seem modern.
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